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Aussies chase redemption in Test series

AAP logoAAP 30/10/2016 Rob Forsaith

Optimism and pessimism are rarely in short supply in the lead-up to the first cricket Test of an Australian summer, at which point it is hard to be proven wrong.

The home side can appear invincible if coming off a productive tour. Or indefensible if they've endured a winter of discontent, as the Aussies suffered in a shambolic 3-0 Test series loss to Sri Lanka in August.

The change of scenery means that form can either be ignored or emblematic - depending on what suits your argument better.

The tourists, in this case a South African outfit minus injured skipper AB de Villiers, are both winless and undefeated in the series.

And national selectors have made masterstrokes or blunders - depending on how you view the selections of Shaun Marsh and Joe Mennie ahead of Joe Burns and Jackson Bird.

There's only one way of finding the truth out. Soon it will be up to Steve Smith's side to regain respect against South Africa and Pakistan and reassert their dominance at home.

It won't be easy against the Proteas, who have won their past two Test series in Australia.

The upcoming three-Test series, which starts at the WACA on Thursday and concludes with a day-night Test at Adelaide Oval, is being billed as the greatest challenge of Smith's captaincy.

There is merit to the tagline.

Smith showed incredible composure and class two years ago, when he captained a grief-stricken Australia in the absence of hamstrung and heartbroken skipper Michael Clarke.

There were captain's centuries in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. There were Bradman comparisons.

Smith's own team, one in transition following a glut of retirements and an Ashes loss in England, then exceeded expectations when they comfortably accounted for New Zealand either side of the Tasman. It culminated with the tourists regaining the No.1 Test ranking in February.

Australia have since exited the World Twenty20 at the group stage, relinquished the No.1 Test ranking in embarrassing fashion on the subcontinent and most recently suffered a 5-0 ODI series loss in South Africa.

As alarming as some of those results have been for Cricket Australia (CA) they all occurred on foreign soil and mostly beyond the reach of free-to-air TV.

The nation's sporting attention will shift to Perth after the Melbourne Cup and that means the pressure lifts, something both Smith and CA boss James Sutherland admitted recently.

"The pressure is always on the team when you play at home. You're expected to win," Smith observed.

"Conditions are going to be entirely different to what they were in Sri Lanka."

As always there are subplots aplenty.

Many Australians have a point to prove after Sri Lanka, while Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are ready to rip in after being rested from the one-day tour of South Africa.

Shaun Marsh has a golden chance to nail down a spot in the XI for the first time since a woeful home summer against India in 2011-12, while his brother Mitch remains under the pump to deliver.

The Proteas pack a serious punch in the form of a pace attack headlined by Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.

Faf du Plessis is skipper in the absence of de Villiers. He is the batsman who secured a memorable draw at Adelaide Oval on Test debut, while he likened Australia's fielders to "pack of dogs" when the two sides most recently met in a Test.

All 22 players involved in that Cape Town epic won't forget it for some time.

For Australia it was the moment they clinched the No.1 Test ranking. A fine reward for a stoic knock from Clarke, a last-gasp spell from Ryan Harris that still beggars belief and a ton in each innings from David Warner.

For South Africa it typified Australia's approach. De Villiers suggested sledging was more like personal abuse and incomparable to anything else in his career. Prior to that game, the superstar had been all but accused of ball tampering by Warner in a radio interview. Relations between the teams weren't good.

Warner is now a changed man and both sides are vowing to let their deeds do the talking.

"I wouldn't expect anything less than for them to come hard at us. Not come hard in verbals ... come hard in terms of cricket," Steyn said.

"Their bowlers are going to be up for it ... they're going to be coming past the nose.

"Their batters are going to be in our face, they're going to be on the front foot, they're going to try and show their dominance.

"We're pretty much a similar side. If we go fist to fist, let's see who can fight the longest after three Test matches, then you'll find our winner."

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