South Africa keyed up for summit clash
Corrie van Zyl may look like a typical sportsman, always wrapped in waterproof tracksuit tops and shorts, but he isn't. In fact, in his crisp pink shirt and dark jeans, van Zyl could easily have been mistaken for a movie star. Surprisingly, he was one of the best-dressed men at the welcome party for the Indian team on Monday night in Sandton, exposing his best quality: he simply isn't really what you think he is.
You may think the South Africa coach has sleepless nights about coming up against countryman Gary Kirsten, whose name is being bandied as a possible replacement for van Zyl after the World Cup, but he "isn't too bothered by what Gary is doing". You may think that he is slowly going grey about South Africa's inability to take 20 wickets in the previous two Tests but he "thinks we bowled excellently on the final day" of the second Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. You may think that if he is at the helm of a series win against the number one side in Test cricket, he will opt to stay on as national coach, but van Zyl is so committed to the High Performance Programme in Pretoria that he has moved his family from Bloemfontein to the capital so that he can commit to the project.
It means that the Test series against India will be the last one played under his watch, and although few are likely to remember it for that reason, it represents an important turning point for South African cricket. The Test team has dominated at home since readmission, winning 52 out of 92 matches and losing only 19. They've beaten almost everyone who has visited their shores. Almost.
South Africa have only suffered five series losses at home after readmission - three of those were against Australia in the last decade, at a time when the baggy green was dominating world cricket. The 2002 series was dubbed the "Kings of Cricket" but South Africa were the complete antithesis of majestic as they crumbled to hefty defeats in the first two matches. The next was a 3-0 whitewash in 2006 and the third an embarrassing 2-1 loss that came just after South Africa had won their first series Down Under in 2009.
The India they will face now don't exactly hold the awe Australia did for such a long time, perhaps because of their dodgy record away from home, but the mantle they bring with them is the same. They are the No.1 side in Test cricket, and a side with that label has always overcome South Africa on their own turf.
That territory is particularly important in this series because it is being talked about as the factor that may end up deciding it. South Africa have asked the groundsmen to prepare bouncy wickets, so that they can let their pace attack loose on Indian batsmen known to be uncomfortable against the short ball. Dale Steyn's reputation needs no elaboration but the development of his partnership with Morne Morkel will be interesting to watch. The pair have become known as one the most feared in world cricket, but their true test will come against the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Left-armer Lonwabo Tsotsobe looks certain to play the role of the third specialist seamer, particularly because of the variation he will bring to the side. Tsotsobe has played just two Tests, but showed promise in the one-day series against Pakistan in the UAE. This series presents him with a perfect opportunity to lay permanent claim to a spot in the Test XI and help smoothen the mini-transition period the bowling attack is going through. It may not be obvious but the look of South Africa's pace attack is changing. It's the first time in a decade that they embark on a home series without Makhaya Ntini, who retired from international cricket last month. South Africa are searching for a black African who can have the same impact on the cricketing landscape of this race-affected nation and it may seem, on the surface, that Tsotsobe is the ideal candidate to fill those shoes. With quotas a thing of the past and teams being picked on merit, if Tsotsobe does cement his place, it's unlikely to be because of his skin colour, but it will help the administrators kill two birds with one stone.
With all the anticipation surrounding the clash between South Africa's bowlers and India's batsmen, the flip side has been forgotten. South Africa have a formidable batting line-up, one that will have to contend with Indian bowlers who will be drooling at the sight of responsive pitches. While most of the line-up is settled, there are two important positions that will come under scrutiny: the opener and the No. 6 batsman. Alviro Petersen has had a healthy start to his Test career but will want to perform well enough in the series to silence whispers for Jacques Rudolph to be recalled. Ashwell Prince faces a more immediate threat. JP Duminy was left out of the twelve on Monday, but the pressure is on Prince to take ownership of his spot.
While the spotlight will be on some individuals, the team as a whole will take centre stage. This series is being contested between the two best teams in Test cricket at the moment. South Africa have been involved in three such series in the past at home and come out second-best every time. They must feel as though they have a real chance to turn that around. van Zyl said the rankings don't matter and he's right. Even if India lose two of the Tests, they will still stay No. 1.
The only thing at stake is the series itself. That's the kind of thinking van Zyl likes. He doesn't care that, barring a clean sweep, South Africa may be back at the top in his time in charge. He cares about beating this Indian team no matter where anybody is ranked. For some, that attitude may not make him seem like a man who can lead a team to topple the world's best. That's exactly why he is the best man for the job.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent