Kallis replacement could hold key to series
Somewhere between Centurion, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, Australia will post a big partnership that none of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander will be able to break. They will get frustrated or tired or both. The person whom Graeme Smith hands the ball when that happens could end up playing a defining role in the series.
In the past, that person was Jacques Kallis. Think back to Australia's tour to South Africa in 2008-09. After beating South Africa by 162 runs in Johannesburg, Australia were piling on the pain in the second Test in Durban. Phil Hughes and Simon Katich's opening stand had ballooned to 184.
Kallis was in the midst of his second spell. He pitched one short and wide - an innocuous ball really - and Hughes could not resist. He went for the cut and Neil McKenzie collected the catch at gully.
The rest of that match was forgettable for both Kallis and South Africa. Kallis was struck on the jaw by Mitchell Johnson, who also broke Smith's hand for the second time earlier that day. Kallis scored 22 in the first innings and 93 in the second. Still, South Africa lost the match by 175 runs and the series as a result. They are yet to beat Australia in a home series since readmission.
Kallis' Test retirement late last year means he will not be part of a South African side that could change that pattern. But the person who takes his place could be. By implication, that person could be one of the most discussed players in this series and one of the most important for South Africa.
The South African management and players have taken great pains to repeat as often as they can that Kallis is not being replaced because that is impossible. So it helps that the new entrant into the XI will not at No.4. That is Faf du Plessis' job and he has already proved he deserves it.
After his maiden century in Adelaide, he showed his ability to bat time and bat in a bubble, just like Kallis. Despite a lean patch throughout 2013, he cemented his spot with another match-saving century, against India. He will be a man Australia want to remove, especially with memories of November 2012 still fresh, but he may not be their main focus.
Instead, it will either be Wayne Parnell or Ryan McLaren whom Australia identify as a candidate to exploit. Neither has played much Test cricket - Parnell has played three Tests, McLaren one - and neither has played much long-form cricket recently. They only played one first-class match each this summer.
Although they have credentials - Parnell is quick, offers the left-armer variation in angle and is an aggressive bat, while McLaren is more of what you see is what you get, and what you get is reliability - neither would have been expected to play a key role in a series of this magnitude before. The sense of occasion may be the first thing they need to overcome to avoid being overwhelmed and that will be the second major talking point.
Allan Donald said the South African camp last felt this buzz when they played England for the No.1 ranking in July 2012. South Africa have prepared for this series in a similar way too. Then, they spent time in Switzerland bonding over bungee jumping; now they had a bush retreat to help them reconnect and do their bit to save the rhinos.
Hashim Amla called the feeling "no different," to any other series against Australia, and that is the point. Any series against Australia is different by itslef, as almost every other player who has spoken to the media has explained. They call Australia the team they find toughest to tussle with. They describe Australia's players as competitive, as players who play the game hard on the field and whom they enjoy having a drink with off it. There's a sense of camaraderie between the squads but banter is still a given. Both have helped hype this up as a clash of the titans.
When Australia lost the Ashes 3-0 in England, some of the talk in South Africa was that they would be easy picking come this tour. South Africans watched from afar as Australia gained momentum. For once, they had reason to celebrate the Australian rise because it signaled the team would come to South Africa ready for a fight instead of still being in their rebuilding phase.
Now that Australia have actually arrived a fully formed product, there are some nerves too. Johnson is back and more menacing than he was when he sent Smith to the surgeon. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle complete their trio of quicks. The battle of the bowlers appears a tight one to call in the lead-up, which means the batsmen will have all it all to do. That is where South Africa feel they have the advantage.
Although Australia's batsmen between them scored 10 centuries in the 5-0 whitewash of England, they are still seen as over-reliant on Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin. With Shane Watson out of the first Test and a worry for the rest of the series, that leaves them even more vulnerable. On South African pitches, which have considerable sideways movement particularly when compared to Australia's, the home side believes the advantage could be skewed their way.
But Australia insist the absence of Kallis could change that. A 13000-run sized hole would deplete any batting line-up. Somewhere between Centurion, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in the next month, South Africa may also discover whether and how quickly they can fill that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent