Out-of-practice India against stiff odds
December 18-22, 2013, Johannesburg
Start time 1030 local (0830GMT)
After months of squabbling between the boards, during which the itinerary was rejigged and clipped, the Test series between the first and second ranked teams is finally here. It is not of the ideal length - with only two matches - and it is not at the ideal venues - Cape Town doesn't have a match - but it is happening and hopes are for a hard-fought tussle.
The last time these two teams met in South Africa, in 2010-11, India were No. 1 under Gary Kirsten, and played their best series away from home in the last three years. Since then their away record is abysmal, with 0-4 whitewashes in England and Australia, and their high ranking is a result of strong performances in India.
The conditions in South Africa will be India's biggest challenge. Their new batting line-up will be desperate to prove their ability on fast and bouncy pitches against a bowling attack that is regarded the best in the world. They are, however, going into the Test series cold, having had no long-form match practice in South Africa because their solitary practice game was washed out. If they don't hit the ground running, the series could be lost quickly.
For South Africa, it is a rich end to a year largely devoid of Test cricket. They have played only seven matches and had a seven-month gap between their 2012-13 home season and a tour of the UAE. They have lost only one of those games. Last summer, South Africa won all five Tests at home, and with a lean schedule again next year, they will want a similar result to extend their lead at the top of the rankings.
Form guide(last five completed games most recent first)
South Africa WLWWW
In the spotlight
The series against Pakistan in the UAE this year was Jacques Kallis' poorest since his debut in 1995. He failed to get into double figures and did not take a wicket. Kallis' last century was in Brisbane in November 2012, and though he is not under pressure to retain his place, he will want to perform. Apart from scoring runs, Kallis will have an important role to play with the ball on a pitch that should have some assistance for the fast bowlers.
There are few bigger mantles in cricket to take on than being Sachin Tendulkar's successor at No. 4 in India's batting order, and that responsibility belongs to Virat Kohli. South Africa's bowlers have identified him as one of the most dangerous batsmen in India's line-up and he is also their most experienced, in terms of Test caps, in the top six. Kohli has had tremendous success in limited-overs matches this year and the time has come for him to have a similar impact in the longer format.
South Africa announced their XI on the eve of the match and there were no surprises. They picked three specialist quicks and Imran Tahir as the spinner ahead of Robin Peterson. Hashim Amla returned after missing the Dubai Test on paternity leave in place of Dean Elgar, while AB de Villiers will keep wicket and bat at No.5.
South Africa: 1 Graeme Smith (capt) 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 Faf du Plessis, 7 JP Duminy 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
This is India's first Test since Tendulkar retired and their line-up has a vastly inexperienced look. Kohli is likely to move up the order to No. 4, making space for Ajinkya Rahane at No. 6. They will probably opt for three quicks too, with Ishant Sharma preferred over Bhuvneshwar Kumar because of his pace.
India: (likely) 1 M Vijay, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Rohit Sharma, 6 Ajinkya Rahane, 7 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ishant Sharma, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Mohammed Shami
Pitch and conditions
The Wanderers groundsman has promised a typical Johannesburg surface, which will facilitate bounce and carry but also have plenty of runs. Graeme Smith was happy with what he saw the day before the Test. "There's moisture in this wicket and cracks are looking good," he said. The persistent rain that fell over the Highveld throughout last week has mostly dried up but thundershowers are expected every day of the game. Thursday looks like it could be the wettest.
Stats and trivia
- The last time South Africa lost a Test at home was in December 2011, against Sri Lanka. They have won all six Tests since.
- There has not been a drawn Test in Johannesburg since December 2000, when the New Zealand - South Africa Test was ruined by rain. The last 12 matches at the Wanderers have had results.
- Vernon Philander is five wickets away from 100 Test wickets. If he gets there at the Wanderers, he will be the joint sixth fastest bowler to do so. For India, Zaheer Khan is five away from 300 wickets.
- MS Dhoni is the only member of the India's top seven to have played more than 20 Tests. The Johannesburg Test will be his 50th as captain.
"Jo'burg people are very vocal and intense. The Bullring is a place we enjoy playing at. At the Wanderers, if you can post decent totals you give yourself the best chance of winning the game."
Though India have not lost any of their three Tests at Wanderers, Graeme Smith believes the home advantage will count for something
"One of the most crucial things will be to bowl well. It will be very important to hit the right areas and try to hit the top of off stump."
India captain MS Dhoni
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent