Australia captain Michael Clarke at a training session. (AP)
Centurion: Whatever the 'poverty,' as one reporter described it, of England's performances in the Ashes, Australia will discover over the next three weeks just how good its revived Test team is. Australia can't overtake South Africa as the top-ranked team - even if they wins this series 3-0 - but that doesn't matter a bit for either. Only a series victory does and Australia's 5-0 whitewash of England sent it to South Africa with ideal preparation, if an Ashes series can be viewed as that.
While disagreeing with the reporter's assessment of England, Australia captain Michael Clarke said on Tuesday that South Africa's No. 1 ranking was undoubtedly well-earned, and the Australians will discover how far off the top they are.
"They've earned their No. 1 ranking, they're the best team in the world," Clarke said at SuperSport Park the day before the first Test. "And that's the challenge you want as a player. It's a great challenge and Test and opportunity for this Australian team that's high on confidence at the moment through the success we had in the Australian summer, but we're up against a very good opposition, there's no doubt about it."
Australia dominated England off the back of a fast bowling trio led by Mitchell Johnson. In South Africa, Australia's batsmen will face a similarly aggressive threat from the home attack that includes No. 1-ranked Test bowler Vernon Philander and No. 2 Dale Steyn.
Previously, in his first media opportunity in South Africa, Clarke immediately backed his quicks as the best in the world and better than South Africa's, comments pounced on and poured over by the home media. Australia's other bowlers hinted that South Africa's batsmen also won't be able to handle the pace of Johnson and the aggression of the Aussies.
"We don't expect anything different," South Africa captain Graeme Smith said. "We have a good idea of how to counter it and ultimately it's all a sideshow. It's all about the cricket."
With two lethal fast bowling attacks, the batsmen in both lineups will probably face the most pressure throughout the three-match series. Clarke was asked, a little mischievously, if he rated his batsmen above the South Africans as he did with his bowlers.
"We're about to find out, aren't we?" Clarke replied. In fact, despite the hype over a meeting of two of cricket's most aggressive teams, and two in-form teams, a war of words has not broken out ahead of the contest.
Clarke recognized the Proteas' bowlers as "probably the best bowlers that I've faced in my career." Smith and the South Africans have made a point, they say, of not letting the talk overshadow the cricket. "I think the Aussies have been good for ticket sales and newspaper sales and that's been beneficial from that perspective," Smith said. "It's been business as usual for us, really."