BRISBANE – If Australia reclaims the world No.1 Test ranking this summer, it can thank a man who, by his own admission, was never good enough to play international cricket.
It would not be the first time Mickey Arthur has conjured such a feat.
Australia’s coach is feeling a distinct sense of deja vu going into the Test series against South Africa at the Gabba today.
The closest Arthur ever got to playing Test cricket was making his first class debut against the rebel Australian side led by Kim Hughes on its controversial 1985 South Africa tour – and that was close enough.
“Rodney Hogg bowled the first ball. He was quick. He certainly let me know he was around,” recalled Arthur with a smile.
“I wasn’t good enough to play internationally but I always tried to get the best out of myself.”
Twenty years later he was coach of a South Africa team not only welcomed back to international cricket but aiming to dominate.
It realised that dream in 2009, just months before Arthur left, having helped transform a world No.5 side seen as mentally fragile into cricket’s No.1 ranked Test side – at one stage going nine straight series unbeaten and having secured their first Test series win on Australian soil in 2008.
Now Arthur wants to do it all again, this time as Australia’s mentor and with his former team in his sights.
And he admits that sense of deja vu is there, especially when captain Michael Clarke enters the Australian dressing room.
“When I look at the time that [Proteas captain] Graeme [Smith] and I got together for South Africa it was kind of the same as the time Michael and I have come together for Australia,” Arthur said.
“Graeme is a phenomenal leader. He has an aura about him and when he talks, people listen.
“Michael Clarke is exactly the same. They are very similar characters and [there are]definite parallels between them.
“They are both very positive and lead by example. And when they play well, the teams they lead tend to be successful.”
Statistics have been kind to Australia of late – it has won six of its past seven Tests and has not lost any of its five series under Clarke since the shattering 3-1 Ashes defeat in November, 2010.
Ranked world No.3, Australia is rightly proud of its record at the Gabba, not having lost a Test in Brisbane since 1988.
However, South Africa is quick to point out it has not played in Brisbane since 1963.
And armed with a pace battery fast-bowling great Allan Donald has described as South Africa’s “best ever”, it is looking to make a triumphant return.
Not that Australia needs to be reminded of the Proteas’ pace threat.
Six survivors remain from the team routed for 47 by Dale Steyn, then debutant Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in Cape Town last year – Australia’s lowest score in 109 years.
While Arthur sounds proud that his former South African charges are again world No.hs1 after beating England on home soil this year, he also reminds the players he knows what got them there – and isn’t afraid to use it against them.
“I know the guys personally. I know exactly what makes them tick,” he said.
“Whether that can be used to win a Test series, I’m not sure.
“But I’ll certainly be giving a lot of the information to our players.”
Australia’s batsmen may need all the information they can get.
The home side looks to have a brittle top order with openers Ed Cowan and David Warner yet to convince everyone about their Test credentials, first-drop Rob Quiney on debut and No.4 Ricky Ponting overcoming a hamstring injury and the demons of his last South African tour.
No.5 bat Clarke is the only Australian in the world’s top 10 Test batting rankings at sixth.
The side has also lost Shane Watson (calf), robbing the first Test of a heavyweight all-rounder clash with Jacques Kallis, rated the “best since Bradman” by Arthur.
In contrast to Arthur, South Africa’s coach Gary Kirsten is a man who was definitely good enough to play international cricket – 101 Tests and 185 ODIs, in fact.
The second Test will be in Adelaide (November 22-26) before the finale in Perth.
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