Australia gambles on youth to avoid a sweep v South Africa

South Africa's cricket captain Faf du Plessis opens his hand as he comments in Adelaide, Australia, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, after being found guilty and fined for ball tampering by the International Cricket Council. South Africa and Australia play the third test of their series starting Thursday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Rick Rycroft/AP

ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) After Faf du Plessis left behind the media conference room and, hopefully, the ball tampering case which he had been discussing on Wednesday, his place was taken by Australia captain Steve Smith to talk about his much-changed lineup and whether it can avoid an unprecedented test series sweep at home against South Africa.

The young skipper has made a habit of announcing his team at the news conference on the eve of tests since he took charge last year, and this was no different. Only this time, he had to elaborate.

Three uncapped batsmen have been selected in Australia's top six, Matthew Wade was recalled as wicketkeeper at the expense of Peter Nevill and Jackson Bird was recalled to the pace attack – in all, five changes to the team that capitulated in the second test last week and conceded a third consecutive series on home soil to South Africa.

The three incoming batsmen, who earned their caps on the basis of domestic form, will have the added pressure of dealing with the day-night playing conditions at the Adelaide Oval – only the third ever in the pink-ball format. The overhaul leaves vice-captain David Warner, at 30, the oldest player in the team.

So Smith introduced the lineup, starting at the top of the order with 20-year-old, English-born Matt Renshaw opening with Warner, followed by Usman Khawaja, the skipper himself, and newcomers Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson at Nos. 5 and 6. Bird, 29, was recalled for his first test since February ahead of local quick Chadd Sayers, and will work with pacemen Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood and spinner Nathan Lyon.

Trevor Hohns, who became the interim selection chief when Rod Marsh quit last week, produced one of the more inexperienced teams Australia has ever fielded in a test.

''I've almost felt a little shift over the last couple of days in attitude and energy from what the new guys have brought in,'' said Smith, who had never seen Renshaw until after he earned national selection. ''I'm actually really excited now about the young guys coming into the group and what they bring.''

Smith was unbeaten in his first 11 tests as captain, but has now been in charge for five consecutive losses – three in Sri Lanka followed by the lopsided losses to South Africa in Perth and Hobart – and the team has plummeted from the No. 1 ranking.

The new players eased into training almost unnoticed, with most of the attention this week on South Africa skipper du Plessis.

He was found guilty of ball tampering for using an artificial substance – the mint in his mouth – to change the condition of the ball as he shined it during the second test. Du Plessis doesn't believe he did anything wrong, saying cricketers all over the world do the same thing.

Du Plessis was fined but avoided suspension after being found guilty of ball tampering by the International Cricket Council, making him available for a shot at the sweep

South Africa came to Australia without captain A.B. de Villiers and lost leading paceman Dale Steyn to injury early in the first test, but has dominated all but the opening day of the series. They're taking all the credit for Australia's gamble on youth.

''I was very surprised to see the changes to that extent,'' du Plessis said. ''That brings pleasure to see what we're doing … is creating something in the Australian team they feel they need to change.''

Du Plessis said a 3-0 series sweep remained the main driver in Adelaide, where the first ever day-night match last year was over inside three days when Australia beat New Zealand.

''As a leader, you want to be part of creating history – that's something we have done,'' he said, referring to South Africa becoming the first team to win three consecutive test series in Australia since the West Indies in the 1980s and 90s.

''I don't want to miss out on that. We've played very good cricket, we've got something going and it's important to keep that going.''

Du Plessis didn't forecast too much change for South Africa, except for a likely temporary change in how they shine the ball to keep it swinging.

''Mints are just for bad breath now – not for shining the ball,'' he said. ''Possibly for this one game, I need to stay away from the mints.''