Johannesburg: India's young and relatively inexperienced batting line-up will undergo their toughest test yet as they kick-start their three-match One-Day International (ODI) series against South Africa in Johannesburg on Thursday.
Despite being a shortened tour, neither hosts nor visitors are expected to take this series lightly and a lot of battles will be interesting to watch. For India, it will be an exercise to re-affirm faith in their young batters. The likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have all been tremendous in 2013, scoring over 1,000 runs in the calendar year and averaging over fifty. (Read: India vs South Africa: Top Five Indians to watch out for)
The trioka has scored runs in India, England, West Indies and Zimbabwe and their will be sky-high at the moment. However, Indian batting has been look top-heavy in the recent past, with the likes of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina not being among the runs.
In 31 matches this year, Suresh Raina averages only 36. In 21 matches, Yuvraj Singh has scored at only 21.23.
In the last nine matches (seven completed innings each)against Australia and West Indies, they have fared worse -- Raina has scored at 22.42 and Yuvraj at 19.66, facing the same bowling as Dhawan, Sharma and Kohli, on the same pitches.
Along with the in-form top-order, skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni has also maintained his touch with the bat this year.
In 23 matches, he averages 66.90. He has been unbeaten on eight occasions and his conversion rate after getting a start has been good, with four fifties and a hundred.
The hosts will be keen to exploit the lack of form in the Indian middle-order. Given that the wickets in South Africa will afford more bounce and are likely to cater to hosts' traditional strength of fast bowling, the Indians will face a test unlike any other in the last 11 months.
The hosts will be eager to unleash Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis at the first available opportunity.
Both Steyn and Kallis have been included in the squad for the three-match series, after sitting out the third and final ODI against Pakistan.
South Africa lost that three-match rubber, their first series loss to Pakistan at home. Neighbours India will hope to eplicate the form of their arch-nemesis and register their first ilateral ODI series win in South Africa.
For the Proteas, going up against the top-ranked ODI side, this is a chance to ascertain their own plans in this format after some patchy display in the past year.
In fact, South Africa have only beaten Pakistan in two bilateral series (out of three against this opposition) in 2013, failing to impress in the Champions Trophy and losing to New Zealand and Sri Lanka elsewhere.
After Gary Kirsten stepped down as coach, and AB de Villiers' none too impressive captaincy run so far, the team is still trying to find its feet under current coach Russell Domingo.
His biggest aim will be to find a cure for this team's pain-point -- failure to handle pressure and close out games. The fact that they have just one win in their previous eight games while chasing clearly highlights their issues.
While Indian batsmen versus South African bowlers will prove to be the key contest, the Indian bowlers too have a chance to use the conditions and do well. It comes as a chance to regain confidence lost in the last couple months.
Playing on wickets which afforded no life and hampered by the new fielding rules that were heavily stacked against them,these bowlers took a beating like never before in the home series against Australia.
Now, with conditions affording a better balance between bat and ball, they can hope to put on a better display.
Picking the right combination will be vital for both sides. For South Africa, Kallis' presence has always been a boon.
Yet, with his advanced years now, they are beginning to question his utility to the side, with the 2015 World Cup starting to appear in the distant horizon. This series could be an exercise in that direction. India too will be on a similar quest.
Through the year, irrespective of the format, MS Dhoni has professed playing five full-time bowlers. It was a necessity on feather-beds at home. It remains to be seen whether it will prove to be a luxury in relatively more bowler-friendly conditions, forcing him to use a sixth batsman going forward.
It will also be interesting to see how the team management handles Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh's poor form, with Ambati Rayudu and Ajinkya Rahane knocking at the door for an opportunity.
If the rain stays away, a closely-contested encounter is on the cards on Thursday.
India: MS Dhoni (C), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma,Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Siresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane.
South Africa: AB de Villiers (capt), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Match starts at 1700hrs IST