A mouth-watering pace battle awaits
February 12-16, 2014
Start time 1030 local (0830GMT)
After Australia's remarkable Ashes clean-sweep, Michael Clarke praised his men but was firm in his resolve that the Australians would not rest until they were No.1 in the world. What better way to assess themselves than against the world's best? South Africa have occupied the top spot for a year and a half. Daylight is second. Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann will certainly have noted the way South Africa declined to chase a victory that seemed there for the taking against India at the Wanderers in December. But they should also note that South Africa's approach has led them to lose only one of their past 19 Tests. This is a team that has not lost a Test series for five years, home or away. That is a remarkable feat.
The last team to beat South Africa was Australia in early 2009. In South Africa. With Mitchell Johnson at his peak. In fact, since South Africa's readmission Australia are yet to lose a Test series in the country. That is a remarkable feat. Even the drawn two-Test battle in late 2011 was fascinating, featuring as it did Australia's all-out 47 in Cape Town followed by the emergence of a teenage Pat Cummins, Man of the Match in the follow-up victory in Johannesburg. Cummins will not be there this time, but the four highest-ranked fast bowlers in the world will be - and that does not even include Johnson. Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle are all in the ICC's top five Test bowlers, and together with Johnson and Morne Morkel will make for a captivating series.
Which team's batsmen will handle the pace assault best? Australia had a settled batting group through the Ashes but could have two new faces in Centurion, with the uncapped Alex Doolan favoured to debut and Shaun Marsh or Phillip Hughes also likely to play due to Shane Watson's injury. South Africa's main question is how to handle life after Jacques Kallis. The likely new No.4, Faf du Plessis, has already shown the Australians his credentials, almost single-handedly saving the Adelaide Test in 2012. And any team that can have the No.1 batsman in the world - AB de Villiers - coming in at three-down is a force to be reckoned with.
(last five completed games most recent first)
South Africa WDWLW
In the spotlight
Dale Steyn might be ranked second in the world to his team-mate Vernon Philander, but that is not necessarily the view Australia's batsmen will take. His high-quality, high-speed outswing will ask serious questions of an Australian line-up that remains vulnerable against the moving ball. The presence of two left-handers at the top of Australia's order might help them slightly, but if they have right-handers at Nos.3, 4 and 5, expect the edges to fly.
Back in 2009, Mitchell Johnson entered the tour of South Africa at his peak, having just broken Graeme Smith's hand in the Sydney Test and finding the rhythm and pace that has deserted him at times during his career. Five years later, he has it again. The reigning Allan Border Medallist and tormentor of England during the Ashes, Johnson has the potential to worry South Africa's batsmen like few other bowlers in the world. They might handle him better than England, but don't expect his impact to drop off too much.
For the first time in more than 18 years, South Africa must work out what to do without Kallis, a man who was two cricketers (at least) in one. Du Plessis appears set to move up to Kallis' No.4 spot, which opens up a place at No.7 that could be filled by either Wayne Parnell or Ryan McLaren. Parnell offers more pace and that might earn him a chance to play his first Test in nearly four years. However, there is also the possibility of Rory Kleinveldt being included. JP Duminy was battling tendonitis in his left wrist in the lead-up to the match but was recovering reasonably well.
South Africa (possible) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla 4 Faf du Plessis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 JP Duminy, 7 Wayne Parnell / Ryan McLaren, 8 Robin Peterson, 9 Vernon Philander, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Morne Morkel.
Watson's absence due to a calf injury means there will be two changes to Australia's batting order from the side that played in all five Ashes Tests. The guessing game is which two of Doolan, Marsh, Hughes and Moises Henriques will miss out? It seems likely that Australia will rely on their four-man attack in Centurion, which would leave Henriques on the bench. Doolan is set to debut at No. 3 and Marsh, who was picked ahead of Hughes in the original squad, looks likely to join him. This appeared to be confirmed by the national selector John Inverarity's consoling chat to Hughes late in Australia's final training session.
Australia (possible) 1 Chris Rogers, 2 David Warner, 3 Alex Doolan, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Steven Smith, 6 Shaun Marsh, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Ryan Harris, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Pitch and conditions
Two days before the Test, the Centurion pitch had a white sort of shade to it but still bore some grass. There should be something there for the fast bowlers and the moisture in the air should also offer some assistance. Typical Highveld thunderstorms are expected to play a part throughout the match - last week, the Hennops River outside the ground burst its banks and the hotel nearby had to be evacuated.
Stats and trivia
- Since Kallis made his Test debut in December 1995, South Africa have played only 18 Tests without him - an average of one per year
- In six Tests in Centurion, Dale Steyn has taken 36 wickets at 17.61; Vernon Philander has 12 victims at 13.66 there from two Tests
- If Australia win this series, they will move up to second place on the ICC's Test rankings
- Chris Rogers has played 257 first-class matches but until this tour had never so much as visited South Africa, let alone played cricket there
- Australia and South Africa have met only once in a Test in Centurion, in 1997, when Allan Donald took eight wickets in a South African win
"If you're the No.1 team in the world, you have to be favourites. It's something we've become accustomed to. We worked very hard and went to some tough places to get that ranking and to defend it so we're comfortable with that."
Graeme Smith is happy for his men to be the front-runners.
"If we want to get back to being No. 1 in the world, we have to have success away from home, we have to beat the best teams, and as tough a challenge as it is we're excited about it."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here