The key contests December 14, 2006

Head to head

Sachin Tendulkar's tussle with Dale Steyn may be the one to watch out for © Getty Images

Ahead of this Test series, there are some things that don't require special powers of prognosis: like Makhaya Ntini taking wickets - he has 176 from 35 home Tests at an average of 22.83 - and Rahul Dravid making runs. But you sense that the clinching factor could well be how some of the other big names go in head-to-head tussles. South Africa will start overwhelming favourites, but, as Dravid reiterated at the pre-match press conference, there's enough quality in the Indian dressing room to hurt any team. Here, Cricinfo takes a look at some of the key contests that might well decide the fate of the three-match series.

Graeme Smith v Zaheer Khan

If you went by numbers alone, you'd be inclined to scoff and ask: What contest? Zaheer has just three wickets, all from one innings at Kolkata two seasons ago, in three Tests against South Africa, and the average is an unflattering 92.66. Since returning to the side at the start of the one-day series, though, he has bowled as well as he did before the hamstring injury in Brisbane (2003) sent his career off the rails. Smith has 155 runs at 38.75 in two Tests against the Indians, including a brave 71 in a lost cause at the Eden Gardens, but he was as hapless as a drunk on ice when faced with Zaheer's incoming deliveries in the one-day series. The opening hour or two of each innings could well set the tone for the series, and a rejuvenated Zaheer currently has the upper hand.

Smith: 2 4 0 155 71 47 37 38.75 0 1

Zaheer: 3 97.4 278 3 3/64 3/86 92.66 2.84 195.3

Sachin Tendulkar v Dale Steyn

This is the ultimate clash - the weather-beaten old champion against the eager young pretender. Tendulkar has little left to achieve in the game, but his record against South Africa suggests in no uncertain terms that they have troubled him more than any other side. He did play two of the finest knocks seen on South African soil, the breathtaking 169 at Newlands (1996-97) and the delightfully inventive 155 at Bloemfontein (2001-02), but in 16 Tests overall, he has just 1003 runs at 37.14.

Steyn has just eight Test caps, but his unbridled pace makes him the perfect shock tactic. He can be wayward and erratic, but when he gets it right, no one likes it. He combined with Ntini to rout New Zealand at Centurion earlier this year, taking 5 for 47, and worried the Sri Lankans in Colombo, taking 5 for 82 in a 13-over spell that veered from sensational to atrocious every so often. Tendulkar has been hit on the body and helmet a few times this past season and, if the South Africans scent a frailty against genuine pace, it will be Steyn who they send in for the kill.

Tendulkar: 16 29 2 1003 169 155 111 37.14 3 3

Steyn: 8 271.5 1124 32 5/47 7/134 35.12 4.13 50.9

Jacques Kallis v Anil Kumble

Kallis is South Africa's answer to Dravid, a solid technician with the ability to play strokes all around the wicket. Seldom found wanting in a crisis, he has frequently thwarted India, averaging 82.71 over six Tests. Even the small contributions, like the 36 not out in Mumbai (1999-2000), have been invaluable ones. While the likes of Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers might look to give Kumble the charge, Kallis is likely to be entrusted with the task of wearing him down. Kumble himself is the master of the slow choke, applying pressure relentlessly until the opponent submits. He has 66 wickets at 31.57 from 16 matches against South Africa, and he first gave glimpses of his uncanny ability here 14 years ago, taking 6 for 53 from 44 overs of non-stop probing. With both men possessing the gift of patience in abundance, it will be fascinating to see who blinks first.

Kallis: 6 579 121 82.71 1 4 10 3/30 28.70

Kumble: 16 906.2 2084 66 6/53 8/113 31.57 2.29 82.3

Sourav Ganguly v Shaun Pollock

On the face of it, considering Ganguly's mediocre displays against South Africa (522 runs at 27.47) and Pollock's stellar performances against India (39 wickets at 20.84), this should be a mismatch. But, as he showed in Potchefstroom in the tour game, Ganguly is a man with everything to prove, most of all to himself. The South Africans have been using the wounded tiger phrase glibly, but some are pretty wary of what this proud man might be able to achieve if his strength of will can overcome perceived weaknesses against fast bowling. Down the years, no one has exploited those frailties as ruthlessly as Pollock, who has dismissed Ganguly six times (in addition to scalping Dravid four times and VVS Laxman thrice). His 10 for 147 won South Africa the Bloemfontein Test in 2001, despite centuries from Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, and if India cannot deal with deliveries that shape away and jag back from just short of a length, their litany of woe in the Cape will only continue.

Ganguly: 11 522 73 27.47 0 3 5 2/36 42.00

Pollock: 9 349.5 813 39 6/56 10/147 20.84 2.32 53.8

X-factor: Sehwag

That seems to be a funny thing to say about a man who could barely put bat to ball in the one-day games, but Sehwag the Test player is a different creature. Since his debut here five years ago, Sehwag has seldom had a poor series, and even this relatively lean year has seen stunning centuries at Lahore and St. Lucia. When he bats with trademark high-voltage intensity, he can eviscerate any attack. The problem now is to find the switch and flick it on.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo