First Test preview: Australia v SA


So here we are again. Four years on from Australia's demise, which started in a 2-0 series defeat in India and accelerated in the months which followed, we have yet another Test series deserving of top billing.

So here we are again. Four years on from Australia's demise, which started in a 2-0 series defeat in India and accelerated in the months which followed, we have yet another Test series deserving of top billing.

South Africa have been involved in their fair share of them over the years, yet it was not until they conquered England for the second time in a row that they finally earned the right to say that they are indisputably the finest Test side in the world. The only other time they have held the top ranking it came to them by default, and was gone again before they could play a Test.

Now Graeme Smith's side have the opportunity to cement their standing in a way that others have struggled over the past four years. A series win would put South Africa five points clear of second-placed England and give them an excellent chance of holding the summit for the foreseeable future.

The problem is that the favourites tag has never sat well with the Proteas, who have routinely slumped under the weight of expectation. This tour is an opportunity to reverse that trend, and one suspects that mental strength will be more important than anything else.

Certainly when you line the two sides up next to each, there is no question about which one is stronger. South Africa have a settled XI that has just one change to the team that took the field in Dunedin six Tests ago. If anything that change has strengthened the side, with Mark Boucher's injury-enforced retirement, and more specifically AB de Villiers' willingness to keep wicket, allowing JP Duminy to add another all-round element.

That has created a top seven rather than a top six, while the three pacemen are all ranked in the top nine bowlers in the world. The only question mark is around Imran Tahir, who has not been able to make the sort of impact that many imagined when he made his debut against Australia a year ago.

By contrast Australia will hand out the 11th new baggy green since Michael Clarke took over midway through last year when Rob Quiney makes his debut in Brisbane. It has been a season and a half of change, and although Clarke's reign has been impressive thus far, questions remain as to how far they have come.

The South Africa that they drew with 1-1 this time last year was not nearly as settled, and Gary Kirsten's methods had not yet taken effect. Similarly there is doubt around whether their 4-0 humbling of India was more of a reflection of their quality, or India's ineptitude.

This series might begin to answer some of those questions, and it begins at a ground where Australia have had a lot of success lately – they have not lost at the Gabba since 1988.

Whichever way this one goes, it looks like the pitch will provide plenty of intrigue. Although the groundsman has said that there will be turn, Clarke said on Thursday that it had changed overnight, and its extra green tinge could lead him to go with four seamers.

That's fairly unlikely though, and so the big decision will be on whether Mitchell Starc's left-arm variety is preferred to the wiles of Ben Hilfenhaus.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>Australia:</i> With an inexperienced top three set to face up against South Africa's pace trio, the hosts might end up with a reliance on the in-form <b>Ricky Ponting</b> at number four. The former captain has tweaked his technique to iron out a technical glitch since that tricky tour of South Africa a year ago, and is currently leading the list of runscorers in the Sheffield Shield.

<i>South Africa:</i> The Proteas will be hoping for a big tour from <b>Morne Morkel</b>, who has been an admirable support bowler for Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander without grabbing the headlines himself. But while Morkel can blow a bit hot and cold he was superb against left-handers in England, and Australia have five of them in their top seven.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><br>November 2011, Second Test: Australia won by two wickets at the Wanderers<br>November 2011, First Test: South Africa won by eight wickets at Newlands<br>March 2009, Third Test: South Africa won by an innings and 20 runs at Newlands<br>March 2009, Second Test: Australia won by 175 runs at Kingsmead<br>February 2009, First Test: Australia won by 162 runs at the Wanderers

<b>Prediction</b><br>Better on paper, and now boasting the confidence that comes from winning on the road on a regular basis, <b>South Africa</b> should have what it takes to claim an early series lead.

Online betting firm <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Sky Bet</b></a> has South Africa as favourites in the betting for the first Test. Visit Sky Bet for the latest <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>cricket betting</b></a>.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>Australia:</i> Ed Cowan, David Warner, Rob Quiney, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke (capt), Michael Hussey, Matthew Wade (wk), Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Lyon.

<i>South Africa:</i> Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wk), Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.

<b>Dates:</b> 9-13 November<br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:00 – 12:00 (00:00 – 02:00 GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 12:40- 14:40 (02:40 – 04:40 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:00 – 17:00 (05:00 – 07:00 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> Billy Bowden and Asad Rauf<br><B>Third umpire:</B> Richard Kettleborough<BR><b>Match referee:</b> Ranjan Madugalle