Sydney: Johannesburg: Australia's bid to remain the world's top Test side will face a tough challenge in the three-match series which starts against South Africa next week.
The Australians limber up with a three-day match against a Cricket South Africa President's XI in Potchefstroom from Friday. In the days leading up to the main course of test action, the captains are expected to joust verbally around the issue of which side is under the most pressure.
Australia has been the top-ranked nation for the past six years, but was beaten 2-1 on home soil by South Africa in December and January. All it needs for South African to leapfrog the team is a home series win.
Australia captain Ricky Ponting, whose side being rebuilt after losing several key players in the last couple of years, needs to get his men to perform consistently in the tests, which start in Johannesburg on Feb. 26 and finish in Cape Town on March 23.
He clearly also has to motivate a fairly inexperienced attack minus the injured Brett Lee and Stuart Clark to take the battle to a bullish Proteas batting line-up.
South African captain Graeme Smith is playing again after breaking a knuckle in Sydney and experiencing discomfort from a tennis elbow injury, which might need surgery in the future. The exciting JP Duminy has also retained his place in the test squad ahead of fellow left-hander Ashwell Prince.
Prince broke his left thumb the day before the start of the Perth test in December, and back-up batsman Duminy made the most of his test debut. He hit a memorable 166 in Melbourne as the Proteas went 2-0 up, while Prince missed all three tests.
The pressure facing Smith and his team will be from the home fans, who now expect South Africa to see off Australia comfortably after beating the old rival in Australia for the first time.
Ponting has recalled the way his side bounced back to beat England in Australia in 2006-07, after relinquishing the Ashes in 2005 in England.
In that instance, he said England could not handle the pressure of playing in Australia. However, the host nation still had the services of standout players like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hayden at their disposal as they exacted revenge.
Interesting selections in the South Africa President's team this week are attacking left-handed batsman Vaughn van Jaarsveld, who had a few disappointing one-day outings on the recent Proteas tour of Australia, and Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir.
Tahir, who has played for the Pakistan A side in the past, qualifies to play for South Africa in April this year. Team management is known to be interested in bringing him into the wider pool of national contenders.