A tantalising middleweight battle
November 3-7, 2016
Start time 1030 local (0230 GMT)
So often in recent years, series between Australia and South Africa have been heavyweight title fights. Two of the most successful Test nations of the past two decades, they have more than once met with a No.1 ranking on the line. When they last played, in 2014, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson bowled Australia to a series triumph in Cape Town that resulted in South Africa losing top spot and Australia gaining it when the ICC recalibrated its rankings a few weeks later. In fact, only once since the Test rankings were introduced in 2003 have these teams started a series with neither of them holding top spot. That was the two-Test battle in South Africa in 2011, when Graeme Smith's men were No.2 and Michael Clarke's side held No.4.
This year, it is more of a middleweight bout, with Australia sitting at No.3 and South Africa having slipped to No.5, an unprecedentedly low combination of rankings for these two teams at the outset of a campaign. And yet it remains an enticing contest. How could it not, given the history? One remarkable feature of Australia-South Africa battles is that the home advantage means almost nothing. In fact, of the past six series between these two sides, the away team has won five and the other was drawn. Not since 2005-06 in Australia - the era of Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist et al - has the home side won an Australia-South Africa or South Africa-Australia series.
The odds might look to be stacked in favour of Australia breaking that drought this summer. South Africa have won only two of their past 12 Tests, and are without their captain and arguably best player AB de Villiers. Australia, meanwhile, have not lost a home Test series since the last time South Africa visited, in 2012, and last summer crushed New Zealand and West Indies such that by the end of February they were - albeit briefly - top of the rankings again. But facing Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and co will be a very different challenge, as will keeping the likes of Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis quiet. Bear in mind too that Australia's strike bowler, Mitchell Starc, is coming off a nasty leg injury and has just one fairly underwhelming innings of first-class bowling to his name since then.
And then there is the venue. For more than two decades Australian Test summers have started in Brisbane, and such has been their dominance at the Gabba - West Indies in 1988 were the last to beat Australia at the ground - that it has been nicknamed the Gabbatoir. But this year, to allow for the Gabba hosting a day-night Test later in the season, the summer opener has been moved to the WACA. And that holds no fears for South Africa, who have played three Tests at the WACA for two wins and a draw. Australia have never beaten South Africa at the ground. And as many as seven of South Africa's likely XI - Steyn, Amla, du Plessis, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dean Elgar - have experience of winning WACA Tests.
Who cares if it's not a heavyweight bout this time? Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta were all pretty good to watch. Middleweights, all of them.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa: WDWLD
In the spotlight
South African readers may wish to look away now. Put your hands over your eyes and scroll down to the next paragraph because you don't want to see these figures. David Warner's Test average at the WACA: 95.85 (from four Tests). Warner's Test average against South Africa: 68.09 (from six Tests). Warner's last innings against South Africa: 173 (in a Cape Town ODI last month). Warner's last first-class innings: 134 (in the Sheffield Shield last week).
Welcome back, South Africans. You will be happier to read this section. Australians? Yeah, you might want to flick ahead to the team news. Faf du Plessis' Test average against Australia: 63.37 (from five Tests). Du Plessis' Test average in Australia: 146.50 (from two Tests). Du Plessis' score in South Africa's last warm-up game in Adelaide: 102 (retired).
Australia confirmed their XI on the eve of the match, with Peter Siddle preferred for the third pace-bowling position. The uncapped Joe Mennie has been named 12th man.
Australia 1 David Warner, 2 Shaun Marsh, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Adam Voges, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Peter Nevill (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.
South Africa's main question is whether to include Morne Morkel as a fourth fast man alongside Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, or whether to pick a specialist spinner. The left-arm orthodox spinner Keshav Maharaj would seem to have the front-running if the selectors want a spinner, but Morkel's experience would be tempting them. However, having missed the series against New Zealand with a back injury, Morkel would need to convince the selectors he is ready to get through five days.
South Africa (possible) 1 Stephen Cook, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Keshav Maharaj/Morne Morkel.
Pitch and conditions
The WACA provided a disappointing high-scoring draw last summer, and the curator is hoping to avoid such a road this year. He has left a little extra grass on the surface, which he hopes will also have more pace in it. The forecast for the whole Test is sunny with temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s.
Stats and trivia
- Dale Steyn needs six wickets to go past Shaun Pollock as South Africa's all-time leading Test wicket taker
- Australia have won only five of their 10 most recent Tests at the WACA
- South Africa have never lost a Test in Perth
"They will take comfort in the fact that they are playing in home conditions. When we went to India and we lost there, we were a little bit scarred and we took comfort in going home but it took time. Guys needed to find form." "
Faf du Plessis, South Africa's stand-in captain
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale