South Africa's batting depth 'daunting'
Four years ago, JP Duminy stepped into Test cricket as if he was a veteran. On debut in Perth, his composed 50 not out helped South Africa complete the second-highest chase in Test history. In the second Test in Melbourne, he calmly compiled 166. It seemed he was destined to move up the order from No.6. Now South Africa are back in Australia for the first time since that trip and their batting is so deep that Duminy could be coming in all the way down at No.7.
It's a daunting prospect for Australia's bowlers. At the top is Graeme Smith, who was an inspirational leader last time South Africa visited Australia, and his opening partner Alviro Petersen, who has made himself a fixture in the side with three hundreds in seven Tests this year. Then there's Hashim Amla, who last year in South Africa the Australians found about as immovable as Table Mountain.
Then there's the small matter of Jacques Kallis at No.4. It is true that over his 18-year career Kallis has not saved his best for Australia, but anyone with 12,641 runs at 56.94 is not to be trifled with. Only once the first three wickets have fallen will the Australians see AB de Villiers, who until earlier this year was the highest-ranked Test batsman in the world. And after all that, Australia's bowlers must still deal with Jacques Rudolph and Duminy.
What makes South Africa's batting line-up even deeper than in recent series is the fact that Mark Boucher's forced retirement through a serious eye injury has allowed de Villiers to take over the wicketkeeping duties. Although he has been battling a back injury, de Villiers is likely to retain the gloves against Australia, ahead of the backup wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile.
But for all the runs South Africa's batsmen have piled up in Test cricket, the Australians know they are not infallible. James Pattinson, who is likely to be part of the attack for the first Test at the Gabba, watched with interest at the Wanderers last year when the teenager Pat Cummins delivered a sustained, hostile spell to the veteran Kallis, full of accurate bouncers, few runs, and culminating in an edge to slip.
"Any batsman is vulnerable if you bowl well," Pattinson said. "The Gabba and the WACA is going to give some good assistance for that bouncer and it's all about getting your plans against the right batsmen. We've definitely touched on that in the last couple of weeks… about how to set different batsmen up.
"Amla has been in great form, Graeme Smith has been in great form and you look at them and they're probably their key at the top of the order, as well as Kallis. It's a pretty long batting line-up and a pretty daunting task as a bowler but something that I'm looking forward to. These challenges don't come around very often. Hopefully we can knock them over and get the wood on them.
"They build their innings around Smith. He's been a fantastic player for a number of years and their captain as well. I think if you can get on top of the captain early on, especially early on in this series, it brings the other players down. If we can try and get on top of that opening partnership, get early wickets, that's the key for us, to get a look at Amla and Kallis pretty early with the new rock."
The ability of Australia's bowlers to make inroads into South Africa's batting line-up will be all the more important if Australia's batsmen wobble. The Gabba and the WACA will suit Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, arguably the best pace-bowling trio in world cricket. Pattinson, 22, was awestruck when he first saw Steyn bowl live, curling the ball whichever way he wanted, at express speed. It's a skill Pattinson has when at his best but he knows that for now, Steyn remains a cut above.
"I remember the first time I went to South Africa and I watched Dale Steyn bowl and it was unbelievable watching him bowl live," Pattinson said. "He's a fantastic athlete and it's fantastic the way he goes about it, his aggression and he swings the ball at good pace. He's someone that I would like to bowl like one day and have his record.
"It's going to be pretty hard to do because he's such a good bowler. Our batsmen are going to have to be on their best games to try and combat him and Morkel and Philander, who's almost the missing man in this, nobody is talking about him but his record over the last year has been fantastic. There'll be a bit more pressure on the bowlers to bowl well and look after our batsmen as well."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here