Neither side has a great record in the T20 World Cup and a first-up loss could have huge ramifications in what has become a stacked Group 1.
Based on recent form and the ICC T20I rankings, South Africa, not Australia, should start favourites. South Africa have won nine of their last 10 matches coming into the tournament and looked impressive in their two warm-up matches against Afghanistan and Pakistan. Australia on the other hand have lost eight of their last 10 T20Is and their last four series. They barely scraped past New Zealand in their first warm-up game and were hammered by India in the second.
But Australia have a good recent record against South Africa, winning their last series in South Africa in 2020, largely built off the dominance of their opening duo in Aaron Finch and David Warner and their powerful bowling unit. But both Finch and Warner enter the tournament underdone and struggling for runs.
Tabraiz Shamsi, the current No.1 T20I bowler, will give Australia a trial by spin while Australia's quicks will be set to challenge South Africa's top order.
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WWWWW
In the spotlight
There is pressure on David Warner following a lean year with the bat. He has had a horrible run of outs since arriving in the UAE with scores of 0, 2, 0, and 1. His team-mates have been consistent in saying that they expect him to come good in the tournament proper but he hasn't got a great record in the T20 World Cup compared to his T20I career, striking at just 129 with only three half-centuries in 23 innings. But he does love playing against South Africa, having scored more T20I runs against them than any other nation.
Tabraiz Shamsi is just four wickets away from taking the most T20I wickets in a single calendar year having claimed 28 so far in 2021. His performances against the much-vaunted West Indies earlier in the year, where he was player of the series with seven wickets at a staggering economy rate of 4.0, ensured opposition sides will treat him with the utmost respect in this World Cup. He could cause Australia a lot of trouble in the middle overs.
Pitch and conditions
Abu Dhabi during the day poses a different challenge than under lights. The temperatures will be oppressive with the forecast for 33 degrees Celsius. Teams have been successful chasing so far in the World Cup at the venue, with three out of four being won by the team batting second, but across all T20s in 2021 in Abu Dhabi more sides have won batting first. The surface has also been friendlier for pace bowlers than spinners this year.
Aaron Finch confirmed Australia would play with seven batters and four specialist bowlers with Glenn Maxwell, Mitch Marsh and Marcus Stoinis to bowl the extra overs. That means space for only one of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, or Kane Richardson.
Australia (possible): 1 Aaron Finch (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Mitchell Marsh, 4 Glenn Maxwell 5 Steven Smith 6 Marcus Stoinis, 7 Matthew Wade, 8 Ashton Agar, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 Josh Hazlewood
South Africa should load up with spin - and Shamsi is fit (as is Temba Bavuma) - against Australia. Despite Rassie van der Dussen making a century at No. 3 against Pakistan they could well slide him back to No. 4 against Australia with his best value in the middle overs.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock, 2 Temba Bavuma (capt), 3 Aiden Markram, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 David Miller, 6 Heinrich Klaasen, 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Anrich Nortje/Lungi Ngidi, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Stats and trivia
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo