WE NOW award so many trophies, football teams often wander towards the sheds, forgetting they must first collect the cup promoting some commercial partnership or charitable cause. So the absence of commemorative hardware for the Test series against South Africa — the Wessels-Wessels Trophy, perhaps? — is unusual. Still, ahead of a series in which Australia's talent, resolve and depth will be severely tested, the lack of silverware might be a redeeming feature. For the home team there is, quite literally, nothing to lose.
The No. 1 Test ranking? Yes, the No. 3-ranked Australians could regain that statistical honour by upsetting the top-rated South Africans. But, surely, until Australia again defeats England, the honour would not be much more than a statistical anomaly.
While the Australians were in the nets on Melbourne Cup day, the only thing Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were working over were the buffets in the Flemington marquees. Still, the days when McGrath and Warne nominated their bunnies still resonate. Playing the underdog goes against Australia's nature. Yet these are far more uncertain times.
Witness coach Micky Arthur trying to retract his statement that Dale Steyn did not bowl as well to left-handers as righties, for fear he might have dug the graves of Dave Warner, Rob Quiney and Mike Hussey.
Once Australia rattled cages. Now its South African coach was tip-toeing past them. When it was revealed Shane Watson had suffered another injury, Australian captain Michael Clarke suggested the all-rounder could still play in the first Test as a specialist batsman despite his strained calf. Yet, by Tuesday, Clarke said Watson was no certainty to regain his place in the Australian team, even if back in working order. Clarke was merely trying to show his faith in the injured Watson, then in his callow top-order.
But in both cases, there seemed more desperation than conviction in the skipper's words. The introduction of a new top-order batsman is usually cause for excitement. In Quiney's case, the excitement has been tempered. That is partly because the Victorian takes the place of the team's best performer, partly because, at 30, Quiney does not immediately strike you as the dashing tyro likely to take Australia to the next level. But in its reasoning, Quiney's selection is encouraging.
At the SCG last weekend, some salivated as Phil Hughes merely survived a menacing spell from Steyn. Less was said of Quiney, who handled the South Africans far more comfortably. He was not picked out of hope and expectation, but on the reassuringly old-fashioned weight of first-class runs.
Regardless of how Quiney bats, it feels like the Australian selectors are again fishing in the right river. The greatest query about the first Test could well be answered on the opening morning. In Warner, Ed Cowan and Quiney — a slogger, a blocker and a rookie — will Australia confront the best pace attack on the planet with the Three Musketeers or the Three Stooges? By the numbers, it might be the most unsung Australian top three since World Series Cricket. Which, consequently, makes it the most intriguing. Cowan is under the greatest pressure. Perhaps, unfairly, because his attritionist style is less aesthetically pleasing. But Australia clearly needs an opener capable of blunting the new ball.
The South African batting line-up is deep and imposing. But you can slice several points off their batting averages in Australia.
It is a series the Australians can win but are not expected to. What we will find out is how prepared they are for the battles next year that do offer a significant trophy. The Ashes.