Nagpur:It will be a battle for world supremacy when an injury-hit India, determined to protect their number one Test team's status, take on second-placed South Africa in the first of the two-match series starting here on Saturday.
While a series victory will consolidate India's position at the top of the ICC Test ranking, even a drawn series would be enough for the hosts to retain their top slot which would entitle them to $175,000 and the coveted ICC Test Championship mace.
However, the team under Mahendra Singh Dhoni, which has an enviable record at home, goes into the contest with their middle order in disarray, following injuries to the dependable Rahul Dravid and the dashing Yuvraj Singh, both of whom have been ruled out of the series.
The cheekbone fracture which Dravid sustained during the Bangladesh tour, has created a rare void at the number three position as the right-hander has missed only one Test, previous to this one, since his 1996 debut.
To make matters worse, there is also uncertainty over season middle-order batsman VVS Laxman who, even though named in the squad, is yet to recover completely from the finger injury sustained in Bangladesh.
Mumbai youngster Rohit Sharma, who lead the Board President's XI against the visitors in the two-day warm-up game at the old VCA stadium here, has been asked to stay back as cover for Laxman.
If Laxman fails to pass the fitness test, India would be forced to field two debutants in Rohit and S Badrinath and another rookie batsman in Murali Vijay in the playing XI.
But the question occupying Dhoni's mind would be whom to send at the number three spot to fill in the big shoes of Dravid.
At the same time, it would also be perhaps Dhoni's biggest challenge to maintain his unbeaten Test record as a captain.
Till date, Dhoni has captained in 11 five-day games and won eight of those, the rest being draws.
It will also be a test of character for in-form opening pair of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir to negate the three-pronged South African pace battery spearheaded by Dale Steyn.
Even though Sehwag ruled the roost against the Proteas in 2008 at Chennai's Chidambaram Stadium with a career and India best 319, the visiting team bowlers are confident of keeping the Delhi marauder in check this time around, a fact easier said than done.
In Dravid and Yuvraj's absence, Sachin Tendulkar will have the additional burden of guiding the less-experienced Indian middle-order line up.
The batting great, however, will have the backing of skipper Dhoni, who is in phenomenal form.
Luckily for India, the bowling department sports a healthier look in the presence of pace spearhead Zaheer Khan and back-in-form Ishant Sharma.
Although S Sreesanth is also on the injured list, Ishant seems to have rediscovered his old rhythm to a large extent and that bodes well for the tough battle ahead.
Zaheer and Ishant are expected to be the only two new ball bowlers in the Indian line-u, while Harbhajan Singh will lead the spin department in the company of either leg-spinner Amit Mishra or left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha.
South Africa, on the other hand, have landed here with their confidence sky high following a series-leveling victory over England in Johannesburg.
Notwithstanding a small problem in the opening pair, South Africa boasts of a formidable batting line up.
Makeshift opener Ashwell Prince has a dubious record in his three previous innings here, scoring just 68 runs but the 32-year-old left-hander is certain to start the South African innings along with skipper Graeme Smith.
But in the presence of hugely experienced Jacques Kallis, the Proteas have a dependable one-down batsman who has a Test average of 50-plus from 81 matches.
In Durban-born Hashim Amla the visitors have a batsman who can tackle spin very well. The right-hander showed his exploits in 2008 when he rattled up 307 runs at just over 61.
AB de Villiers, who scored a classy double hundred when South Africa won the Test at Ahmedabad on their previous visit, exciting Jean Paul Duminy and veteran wicket-keeper batsman Mark Boucher will be in-charge of the middle-order.
On the bowling front, pace is the forte of South Africa's bowling attack with Steyn and lanky Morne Morkel expected to provide early breakthroughs and left-arm first change bowler Wayne Parnell to offer variety in angles and lines of attack.
However, the spin department seems to be the weak link for the visitors with neither left-arm tweaker Paul Harris nor right-arm offie John Botha expected to trouble the Indian batsmen.
Eventually, the spin factor could have a bearing on the contest with the wicket for the game sporting a brownish look and is predicted to provide turn midway through the match.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (c), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Murali Vijay, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, S Badrinath, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Sudeep Tyagi, Pragyan Ojha, Abhimanyu Mithun, Wridhiman Saha. Rohit Sharma (as cover for Laxman).
South Africa: Graeme Smith (c), Hashim Amla, Johan Botha, Mark Boucher, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Paul Harris, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Alviro Petersen, Ashwell Prince, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Umpires: Ian Gould and Steve Davis.
Third umpire: Amish Saheba.
Match Referee: Andy Pycroft.
Hours of play: 9.30 am to 11.30 am; 12.10 pm to 2.10 pm, 2.30 pm to 4.30 pm (Minimum 90 overs).