December 16-20, Centurion
Start time 10:30 (08:30 GMT, 14:00 IST)
The Big Picture
On Monday, Cricket South Africa hosted its biggest ever reception for a visiting team, welcoming India with warmth in Johannesburg. India's happiest cricket memories in the country - and there are only a precious few - were made in Johannesburg.
It's where they won the 2007 World Twenty20, and savoured their maiden Test win in South Africa, before losing the remaining two Tests to give up a 1-0 lead in 2006-07. Kingsmead and Newlands, venues at which South Africa shattered Indian dreams of a series victory on their last visit, are on this tour's schedule as well.
Johannesburg's Wanderers, where Sreesanth swung and seamed through the home side's batsmen, isn't. Instead the battle between Test cricket's top-ranked teams will begin in Centurion, where South Africa have never lost a proper Test, where India have never played a Test. Given how cold the eve of the game was, there will be no warmth. And there could be no Zaheer Khan.
The sub-plots of this Test between two seemingly evenly matched sides are several. On the periphery there's Corrie v Gary, two South African coaches who share a liking for the shade, trying to outwit each other.
There's India's crackerjack opening combination against South Africa's hostile new-ball attack; an accomplished middle order attempting to perform in the only country it has underperformed in; and a richly talented seam attack, challenged primarily by its own inconsistency, striving to unsettle a batting line-up moored by two batsmen, one serene, the other substantial.
And then there's the pitch - a little green, a little more damp - and the weight of history, both ancient and recent: India have won only one out of 12 Tests in the country since 1992; South Africa have failed to win two of their most recent series at home.
For India, the Centurion Test is the first step in the harder leg of a journey that began in October 2008. Since then India have won seven series and drawn two but all of those successes - with the exception of the tour of New Zealand - have been on the subcontinent.
Their rise to the No. 1 ranking has been built on victories in familiar conditions. Between now and the end of 2011, India will have toured South Africa, West Indies, England and Australia. A strong showing in these assignments and fewer people will grudge their No. 1 status.
South Africa are the team everyone recognizes as being closest to No. 1, without quite getting there. On their previous two visits to India, they went up 1-0 in the series only to leave with a shared prize.
A more thorough dismantling of MS Dhoni's team will strengthen their claim as the team likely to compete best in all conditions against all opponents.
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South Africa: DDWDW
Watch out for...
Opening exchanges: A chunk of the build-up has centered around the potential damage Virender Sehwag, and his partner Gautam Gambhir, could inflict on South Africa's campaign. If they bat for a session, India could have 100 before lunch; if they bat for longer, 350 is achievable in a day, which moves the Test forward at rapid speed.
Knock Sehwag over and it all slows down, making it easier for India's opponents to control the pace. South Africa have been tailoring plans to straitjacket Sehwag. They just need to get him into it.
The role of spin has been underplayed in the lead-up to Centurion but the team that has the tighter spinner could win the contest between the bowling attacks. A parsimonious spinner will allow his captain to use him at one end, while fast bowlers rotate at the other. An expensive spinner will mean more shuffling, reduced rest and increased workload for the fast bowlers.
Harbhajan Singh is more experienced and an attacker, but he thrives on confidence and needs to find it quick in South Africa, especially if Zaheer is absent. Paul Harris knows his role is to check India's momentum and replicate his strangulation of India's middle-order at Cape Town in 2006-07.
South Africa have no fitness issues and only have to decide between Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Ryan McLaren. Tsotsobe is the favourite because his left-arm skills add variety to those offered by Steyn and Morkel.
South Africa: (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Ashwell Prince, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Paul Harris, 9 Morne Morkel, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Zaheer has a hamstring injury and his participation is doubtful, which is gut-wrenching news for India. He's the leader of their attack, their cleverest bowler and their most skilled at the art of reverse-swing.
Without him, India's pace attack comprises Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth - both of whom could be searing hot or awfully cold - and a debutant, either Jaidev Unadkat or Umesh Yadav. India will decide on Zaheer and his replacement on Thursday morning.
India (probable): 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Suresh Raina, 7 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Ishant Sharma, 10 Sreesanth, 11 Jaidev Unadkat/Umesh Yadav.
Pitch and conditions
On the eve of the Test, Centurion was wet and cold. It's been raining in the mornings in the lead-up to the game but the afternoons have been sunny. The pitch, as a result, looks green and damp but MS Dhoni didn't think there was enough grass on it.
"It is a normal Centurion wicket, which means it will assist the fast bowlers," Dhoni said. "But the greenest track I have seen in South Africa was the Twenty20 game we played against the South Africans in the 2007 World Twenty20 [in Durban]. I don't think this is anywhere close to the wicket we saw then."
Stats and trivia
* Hashim Amla averages 85 at SuperSport Park, Ashwell Prince 67 and Jacques Kallis 60. Dale Steyn averages 19 per wicket here, Morkel 22 and Paul Harris 23. Click here for a comprehensive stats analysis on the series and Centurion.
"It is a blow, but at the same time we have to see the longer picture. We have to think about the World Cup also. We are so close to the World Cup. Until we are 100% sure about his fitness and injury, we won't risk playing him."
MS Dhoni on Zaheer Khan's chances of playing in Centurion.