Even though India might have history against them in terms of its track record in South Africa, this time they land on the shores of the Rainbow Nation as no underdogs. India carries the prestigious mantle of the No. 1 ranked team in Test cricket and will be looking to consolidate their position at the top of the table against some challenging opponents.
The odds however, stack up heavily against the visitors. Since readmission into Test cricket, South Africa has remained largely invincible at home, having won 52 of their 92 encounters and losing just 19. The Proteas have suffered just 5 series defeats on home soil, three of which came at the hands of the mighty Australians in the last decade.
India has just been victorious in one Test against South Africa a dozen clashes when the latter played hosts. The averages of the visitor's premier batsmen has taken quite a beating on South African grounds. Virender Sehwag's runs per match falls from 55 to 26, Dravid's, from 53 to 34, Tendulkar's, 57 to 40 and Laxman's 48 to 41. So the India team knows straight up where they are lacking.
But at the same time, India has a lot going for it. It is coming off a stellar year so far, holding
South Africa to a tightly-fought draw at home, squaring the two-match series against Sri Lanka in the island country and registering series wins while hosting Australia and New Zealand.
Segwag and Gautam Gambhir currently possess the second highest opening stand average in Test history (the highest, currently) with 58.33. They have chalked up more than 3,250 runs together, including 9 centuries and 18 half-centuries between them. They can indeed be a very destructive pair, especially with a good amount of experience under their belts.
The top-order is further bolstered by the presence of Rahul Dravid at No. 3. With his Man-of-the-Match-winning 148 and 81 in the third Test against South Africa during the 1996-97 tour, he left an indelible impression on this foreign land. And though in the past year, he has slumped slightly in form, he regained touch with a 191 against New Zealand last month.
India has one of the most coveted middle-orders as well. Batting maestro and a veteran of the game for over two decades now, Sachin Tendulkar, is hungry for one more major record that will etch his name on the annals of Test history. He wants another ton to bring up the astounding feat of completing a half-century of centuries. This stint in Soutrh Africa might very well be his last shot at the accomplishment, as the possibility of his retirement following the World Cup next year looms large.
Not to be forgotten is VVS Laxman's role. He has shown over the years that he has the wherewithal to handle any crisis situation with deft ease and calmness and can pivot a game on its head with his balance of caution and aggression. He bears the highest average of an Indian batsmen in South Africa, so his side will be looking at him to pile on a good chunk of its total.
Suresh Raina, who is currently on a poor run with the bat and is also low on experience, could possibly prove the weak link in the side. But with the in-form Harbhajan Singh coming in after him, India's latter order becomes resilient and with Bhajji's support, the tail could wag merrily.
India's pace bowling has made improvement by leaps and bounds in the last decade with S Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan capable of rattling the opponents' top-order. After all, they've done it before - the duo took a total of 33 wicket in the last three-match series in South Africa with Sreesanth ensnaring an 8-for in the first encounter which India won. But a lot of India's chances of effecting a similar impact will depend on Zaheer's fitness, which appears to be flagging. Ishant Sharma has been performing moderately well, but will want to emulate the efficacy he left a mark with during his maiden tour of Australia a few years back.
South Africa is definitely no push-over either. The Proteas possess a very formidable batting line-up. The opening pair of Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen is known to get the South Africa innings to a robust start with Smith performing particularly well over the last year. In The June series against the West Indies which his side won 2-0, he was the highest run-scorer, aggregating 370 runs from 3 Tests and in last month's UAE series against Pakistan, he raked in 144 runs from the two tests.
But the real strength in South Africa's batting comes from their middle order with Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and A B de Villiers, all in the form of their lives. The three were the top run-getters
in the series against Pakistan, notching up nearly 900 runs, including 4 tons and 3 fifties, between them. While the resilience in their batting falls away towards the latter order and tail, the side still have the potential of posting and chasing big targets.
Enough can not be said about the deadly new-ball pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. The duo took a whopping 29 wickets between them in the West Indies in June and 12 wickets in the series against Pakistan. Their efficacy will no doubt be increased exponentially when they take the ball on home ground, especially since the pace and bounce of the wickets here aptly suits their brand of bowling.
As the third seamer, Jacques Kallis is a seasoned campaigner and knows just how to support Steyn and Morkel, while in all likelihood Lonwabo Tsotsobe fits the bill for the fourth seamer's slot after an enterprising one-day series against Pakistan in the UAE where he picked up 7 wickets from 5 matches.
So the die is cast for a scintillating first Test between two evenly-matched sides. Spectators will be drooling in anticipation of the veterans and new-comers go at each other in the five-day contest. A classic at Centurion awaits.