South Africa, Australia square up for pace battle
Batsmen can expect a torrid time when South Africa and Australia square up at SuperSport Park on Wednesday in the first of three Test matches.
Both teams have formidable fast bowling attacks at a venue which usually favours fast bowlers.
South Africa's battery is spearheaded by Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, who are first and second in the International Cricket Council's Test rankings, while Morne Morkel is 13th.
Australian fast bowlers Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson are third, fifth and ninth respectively.
Australian captain Michael Clarke claimed after a crushing 5-0 Ashes series win over England that his side had the best bowling attack in the world - an assertion he repeated when he arrived in South Africa.
South African captain Graeme Smith said his world champion team would not be drawn into a war of words.
"We just want to focus on ourselves and get ourselves ready," he said when his team assembled an unusually early nine days before the start of the series.
While South Africa had a three-day practice match against a composite team, Australia's only scheduled warm-up game in Potchefstroom was cancelled because of persistent heavy rain.
But the tourists have had some hard workouts in the nets, with the fast bowlers encouraged to go flat out against the batsmen, as well as a makeshift practice game.
Both teams have selection challenges.
It will be the first series for South Africa since the retirement of star all-rounder Jacques Kallis, their leading batsmen of the past decade.
Faf du Plessis is slated to move up to take Kallis' place at number four in the batting order to enable AB de Villiers to continue to keep wicket and bat at five.
All-rounders Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell are competing for the vacancy left by Kallis.
McLaren is the steadier player but left-armer Parnell bowls with greater pace and could be a better attacking option.
After playing all five Ashes Tests with the same eleven, Australia will be forced to make at least two changes.
Batsman George Bailey was dropped, while all-rounder Shane Watson was ruled out of the first Test with a calf strain.
Uncapped Alex Doolan is the favourite to take over from Watson at number three, while Phil Hughes and Shaun Marsh will be in contention for the remaining batting place.
Moises Henriques could also come into contention if Australia opt for an all-rounder to augment the bowling attack of Harris, Siddle, Johnson and off-spinner Nathan Lyon.
Both batting line-ups could be vulnerable against high-quality fast bowling. Despite eventually winning all five matches comfortably, Australia were in trouble several times against England.
South Africa's batting has been solid in recent times but Kallis will be missed.
Hashim Amla and JP Duminy had poor series against India recently, while Smith was troubled by Johnson in particular when South Africa lost at home to Australia in 2008/09 - the last time South Africa were beaten in a Test series.
Centurion has been a stronghold for South Africa, who have won 14 out of 18 Test matches at the ground.
Three matches were drawn and only one was lost - a contrived finish against England in 1999/2000.
South Africa (likely): Graeme Smith (captain), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers (capt), JP Duminy, Robin Peterson, Ryan McLaren or Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel.
Australia (likely): Michael Clarke (captain), Chris Rogers, David Warner, Alex Doolan, Steve Smith, Phil Hughes or Shaun Marsh, Brad Haddin (wkt), Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (PAK), Richard Illingworth (ENG)
TV umpire: Ian Gould (ENG)
Match referee: Roshan Mahanama (SRI)
February 12-16 First Test, Centurion
February 20-24 Second Test, Port Elizabeth
March 1-5 Third Test, Cape Town
Follow Emirates 24|7 on Google News.