For an out-of-sorts batsman, a quick look at the Kingsmead pitch would have evoked emotions more in tune with The Nightmare before Christmas than It's a Wonderful Life. Though some of the grass is likely to be shorn before the game starts on Tuesday, the dark-brown colour and the presence of quite a few cracks suggested that it would once again be the bowlers that held sway. South Africa have the more accomplished practitioners on paper, but as India showed at the Wanderers, games are won with skill, aggression and impeccable line and length, not by reputations.

Graeme Smith's is certainly on the line. Against Australia, in six Tests away and home, he talked the fighting talk but froze like a bunny in the headlights when it came to walking it. And after all the talk of pace and bounce and carrying on the one-day domination, both he and Mickey Arthur need the team to deliver in Durban, else one or the other could be due a visit to the employment exchange.

Rahul Dravid was in such a situation before the Wanderers game, pilloried back home for recent failures in the one-day game, and he could tell Smith perhaps better than anyone else just how fleeting Dame Fortune's kisses can be. The incentive for his team couldn't be higher. Success in Zimbabwe last year apart, a series victory here would be India's first in the southern hemisphere since New Zealand in 1967-68.

The conditions are unlikely to be favourable. Overcast conditions are predicted for the opening day, and likely to continue through the duration of the game. Shaun Pollock will be on home turf, lifted no doubt by that 400th wicket up in the highveld, and Makhaya Ntini surely won't bowl as badly as he did at the Wanderers.

The crucial decision for South Africa will come on the morning of the game, with the team management having to decide between Andrew Hall and Morne Morkel to replace the less-than-fully-fit Dale Steyn. Hall injured his knee at Port Elizabeth and hasn't had a game in nearly a month, while a first Test cap would complete a giddy rise through the ranks for the highly rated Morkel. South Africa erred by not giving Pollock the new ball at the Wanderers, and Hall's greater experience and batting ability might just clinch the fourth seamer's slot if the knee looks like going the distance.

India have taken the unusual step of sending Irfan Pathan back home, in a bid to regain some semblance of bowling form before a series of one-day matches at home, and have kept faith with Wasim Jaffer at the top of the order. The only likely change is to come in the bowling component, with a fit-again Munaf Patel offering a more controlled and accurate option than VRV Singh.

Both Munaf and Sreesanth will be playing their seventh Tests, and have made exceptional starts to their careers. The pressure of expectation will now be as constant a companion as the minor niggle, and how they cope will dictate the course that their careers take. Exactly 10 years ago, a 23-year-old Pollock opened the bowling and finished with match figures of 5 for 43 as India were routed by 328 runs, and there are few better role models for a young pace bowler looking to make a name.

You sense though that it will be a game decided by the batsmen. In trying conditions at the Wanderers, India's line-up showed far more grit and application. And if the bowlers continue to dominate, the Test will once again become a matter of which set of batsmen are better equipped to handle the conditions.

South Africa have Jacques Kallis, and a few others struggling for form, while India's middle has been firmed up by the run-scoring returns of Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. If Virender Sehwag can overcome mental demons and blaze away as he can, an upset could be on the cards. For South Africa, who have lost only two Tests at Durban since their return in 1991, that's a prospect too horrendous to contemplate. But unless they show a marked improvement on the mediocrity displayed at Johannesburg, what seemed impossible a month ago may well become reality.

South Africa (likely): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 Herschelle Gibbs, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andrew Hall, 10 Andre Nel, 11 Makhaya Ntini.

India (likely): 1 Wasim Jaffer, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid (capt), 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Sourav Ganguly, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Anil Kumble, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Sreesanth, 11 Munaf Patel.