South Africa and Australia will square off in a three-match Test series starting in Centurion on Wednesday. South Africa have not beaten Australia in a Test series at home since their readmission to Test cricket and this might be their best chance yet to do so.
What: South Africa vs. Australia, first Test
Venue: SuperSport Park, Centurion
When: Wednesday 12-16 February 2014
Start time: 8:30 a.m. GMT/10:30 a.m. local time
South Africa have lost just one Test out of 18 at Centurion and have won 14 of their matches played there. They last lost at Centurion in 2000, against England, and they have won their last three games at this venue.
This is their fortress and in order to assert their dominance at the top of the world rankings, a convincing victory here will be the first step.
There are many talking points for the first Test. For South Africa, the most important is what combination will they go with now that Jacques Kallis is out of the picture. Firstly, the No. 4 spot needs to be filled. That will most likely be a role taken up by Faf du Plessis, but AB de Villiers is also in contention. But even that's not the biggest worry.
What is to be done about the rest of the order? At a press conference I was present at, coach Russell Domingo said that it will very much be a "horses for courses" policy.
That could mean that if the Pretoria surface is bouncy enough, the main spinner falls away and South Africa bring in batsman Dean Elgar and paceman Rory Kleinveldt with JP Duminy and Du Plessis filling in with their part-time spin. Alternatively, Wayne Parnell or Ryan McLaren could slot in lower down the order to lengthen the tail and offer an extra bowling option. Nothing is certain yet.
For Australia, it's a similar situation. Shane Watson has been ruled out through injury and Shaun Marsh, Alex Doolan and Phil Hughes are all contenders for slotting in at No. 3, while Moises Henriques could be considered as an extra bowling option.
Australia's batting will be severely tested throughout the series and any kinks in their armour will easily be exposed with South Africa's vicious pace attack on the prowl.
That said, the Aussies have some venom of their own in left-armer Mitchell Johnson. Johnson is back to his best and will be a tough challenge for Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla particularly, both of whom have had their struggles against left-armers in the past.
The series is set up perfectly and although it's against the backdrop of some unpopular boardroom happenings with the ICC overhauled in a way that looks set to favour Australia at South Africa's expense, if that can be put aside and the series can be focused on for what it promises to be on the field, cricket lovers are in for a treat.
Graeme Smith enjoys the biggest confrontations and batting against Australia is one of those. He and Johnson go way back now, with heated battles, dismissals and broken hands all forming part of their history. Smith is fresh off a double-century in the UAE and his ability to help set the foundation at the top of the order will be crucial.
Brad Haddin was one of the stars in the last two Ashes series and his lower order efforts helped rescue Australia time and time again. He had the highest batting average (61.62) out of all the Aussies and South Africa will have to be wary of any repeat heroics in the coming games.
Graeme Smith (captain), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers (w/k), JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Rory Kleinveldt, Ryan McLaren, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Alviro Petersen, Robbie Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Thami Tsolekile
Michael Clarke (capt), Brad Haddin (w/k), Jackson Bird, Alex Doolan, Ryan Harris, Moises Henriques, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, James Pattinson, Chris Rogers, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, David Warner, Shane Watson, James Faulkner
Squads and stats via ESPN Cricinfo
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