Top-of-table clash too tight to call
It's there in the rarefied air of the Highveld. It's on the radio, it's being talked about in pubs even during a Manchester United-Arsenal game, it's on the streets, it will soon be seen from the grass banks. The No. 1 Test side in the world is here for a three-Test series, no longer the miserable tourists of the past, still with history against them. South Africa are ready, they are going to spice the pitches up a bit, they are going to try and make a move towards the ranking that was theirs before India took it away. It is a series that could define both the teams, but with two days to go the prudent thing to do is to sit on the fence and not call any favourites, as the following breakdown shows.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are arguably the best opening combination going around today, but they haven't been tested in seamer-friendly conditions consistently by bowlers of the calibre of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Still it would need a very good combination to hold an edge over Sehwag and Gambhir. Graeme Smith is as tough as they come, and Alviro Petersen scored a century on debut against India. However, if Sehwag and Gambhir have to face a test of conditions, Zaheer Khan holds a mental edge over Smith. As it often happens, and as it might happen for the series overall, this one might just come down to Sehwag.
Following the openers we have one of the best Nos 3 ever, and another who is in the form of his life. Rahul Dravid is usually just the man for overcast and seamer-friendly conditions, but he last faced such a test in Australia in 2007-08. Since then he has had dips in form, he has been hit by a bouncer that made him miss a Test for only the second time in his career, and there have been calls for younger blood. That there was no question about his selection is testimony to his value to the team, and he is coming off a 191 against New Zealand. Hashim Amla is the most Indian of batsmen you will get to see out of India, and he has serenely and surely been scoring runs by the truckloads. Since he came to India earlier this year, he has averaged 88 in Tests and 76 in ODIs. It is tough to argue against such a No. 3.
Between awe and toughness, reputation and form, it is difficult to stick a neck out here.
Middle orders The Nos 4 of the two teams are absolute legends and have been around forever. In the last series, both of them scored centuries, and nothing much is expected to change there. Sachin Tendulkar is having one of his best years with the bat, Jacques Kallis is not out of form either. Has he ever been? Tendulkar knows the conditions as well as any batsman not South African. You wouldn't bet against Kallis either, who has already scored four centuries this year, and can also bowl pretty mean bouncers and outswingers if needed.
VVS Laxman at No. 5 carries bundles of class and a first-class degree in crisis management with him, AB de Villiers the confidence from having just scored the highest individual score for a South African. However, like Dravid, Laxman hasn't put his fire-fighting skills to test on spicy pitches under overcast skies for a long time. Does that make de Villiers more reliable? Still hard to tell.
Ashwell Prince and Suresh Raina are relative weak links, but Prince's experience and knowledge of home conditions edge out Raina. South Africa might hold a slight edge here, but Tendulkar and Laxman are not batsmen to be written off.
Mark Boucher is more likely to score important lower-order runs than MS Dhoni, if only because the conditions suit his game better. Behind the stumps, there isn't much between them. If Dhoni is flashy with stumpings, he has been a touch slow going for the catches to his right. South Africa hold a slight advantage here, but in the final equation it might not count for a lot.
India hold an edge here, but the conditions might negate the spinners as attacking options. Harbhajan, though, will love the bounce on offer after a long season on slow Indian tracks. Don't forget what Lord Harris did to India in the deciding Test on the last tour.
Tight. Very tight. You would want to back South Africa with Steyn and Morkel arguably being the most dangerous opening bowling combination. It's the third seamer's slot where India level the scales. Zaheer, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth are all aggressive bowlers, all three capable of utilising helpful conditions. There is a rider, though. Except for Zaheer, you are never quite sure what you will get from the Indian seamers. Ishant and Sreesanth can be very good on their days, but on an off day they can be very bad. With Steyn and Morkel, you are assured of a degree of control.
Zaheer's fitness remains dodgy. He did bowl in the nets today, making the Indian camp feel better, but they were still not completely certain that Zaheer will make it for the first Test. If he doesn't, South Africa will have a clear advantage.
In seaming conditions, there will be quite a few coming the slippers way. If there is such a thing called catching form, Dravid hasn't been in it. He also injured his finger while dropping one against New Zealand, and is not even sure if he will be standing in the slips. Tendulkar has been out of slips for some time now, with an injured finger, and Laxman's back doesn't let him stay there for long durations. Expect to see a lot of Sehwag and Raina there.
South Africa are not sure of Smith's presence there he recently fractured a finger but Kallis and de Villiers provide their cordon a more stable look.
On paper, nothing gives. It could come down to what kind of mental state the Indian batsmen are in. Collectively and individually, South Africa is the only country where they have failed to compete consistently. Tendulkar's average falls from 57 overall to 40 in South Africa, Dravid's from 53 to 34, Sehwag's from 55 to 26, and Laxman's from 48 to 41. Consequently, just one win in 12 attempts. They all know they need to correct it, but how much does that play on their minds? It might not matter much if India get off to a good start, but history which says something about India's dislike for the conditions here gives South Africa the slight advantage.
Equally South Africa have a relatively modern history to correct after having failed to close out two Tests against England last season. They have not won either of their last two home series, both against top opposition. That just makes their advantage even slighter. If this is not dead even, it is the closest thing to it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo