Proteas vs Australia: Super bowlers go to war
South Africa's desperation to avoid yet another of the stuttering starts that have dogged them for much of the past five years extended last month to the unprecedented decision to lengthen the imminent series against Australia to four Tests – by playing a "warm-up" Test against minnow neighbours Zimbabwe.
The invitation was declined by the bankrupt neighbours but was a clear indication of the seriousness with which this series is being treated. Before Australia's 5-0 Ashes demolition of England there wasn't a serious dissenting voice regarding the Proteas' status as world Test champions.
Their lead at the top of the rankings is substantial enough to keep them there even if they lose, but rankings are not the only measure of success or talking point around the water fountains and bars in the cricket-playing world.
These are the two best teams in the world, by a distance, and everyone from the cognoscenti to the unwashed knows it.
This is a series that must be won. If it is, Graeme Smith and his team will have taken a year-long stride towards immortality.
They will have to do so, of course, without one of the greatest Test cricketers of all time. Jacques Kallis withdrew with pride and dignity as high as ever after scoring a century in his final match against India in December.
"There will be a different atmosphere in the changing room without me, of course. I'm an old man with lots of experience," Kallis said this week.
"But there is so much talent in that team … If they play to their full potential they will win the series.
“But if they don't, and Australia play to their potential, then Australia will win. They are a seriously good team, as always."
The great all-rounder said he had "no doubt" about the wisdom of his retirement but would be "very involved" with the series, which begins at Centurion next Wednesday.
He even joined the Test squad on a two-day bush safari following the three-day warm-up match against a South African composite XI at the Wanderers that ended on Thursday.
"I haven't watched much cricket on television for the last 20 years because I preferred to get away from the game, but I'll be watching on Wednesday. Maybe not every ball, but I won't be far away from a screen. I would like to stay involved with the team. I'm not part of it now, but I’ve got a lot of experience and if I can help, I will – of course. I'll send a message or call Graeme in the evening.
"My feeling at this stage is that Ryan Mac [McLaren] will be chosen as the fourth seamer and bat at number seven. He may only have played one Test match but he's an experienced guy who stands up well under pressure and can give the captain some control with the ball," Kallis said.
Retaining the seventh specialist batsman, the policy that has served the Proteas so well for the past 18 months, is a realistic option but would require dropping the specialist spinner Robin Peterson.
Including Dean Elgar at number seven is something Kallis believes the team will consider if the pitch and weather conditions suggest that a specialist spinner could be redundant.
"It's never turned much in Centurion so that could be an option because, with JP [Duminy] and Dean you've got both an off-spinner and a left-armer to bowl spin. But Graeme has always been keen to play a specialist spinner and Robbie Peterson is bowling well at the moment, so I would expect him to start," he said.
How will Kallis feel on Wednesday morning? Any regrets likely? What happens when the action begins and, for the first time in almost two decades, half his life, he won’t be a part of it. And he could have been. His last innings was a century and he's bowling as well as ever.
'There won't be any regrets'
"It'll be a different feeling, that's for sure, but there won’t be any regrets. I passed a point in my career and there's no going back. Some players have carried on past that point and have not done themselves justice.
"In my case it was a mental thing, not a physical one. You have to be 100% in every department to play Test cricket because, if you're not, you will be found out and then you let the team down. I know I did the right thing," Kallis said.
Australian seamer Peter Siddle claimed in the aftermath of Australia's Ashes victory that the pace trio including Ryan Harris and led by Mitchell Johnson was "the best in the world". It was a claim endorsed by captain Michael Clarke earlier this week.
South Africa's bowling coach, Allan Donald, said Australia had the right to anoint themselves. Kallis was not so sure.
"It's a big claim for anyone to make – better than Steyn, Philander and Morkel. But everyone's right about one thing – that's where the series will be decided. They are two very, very good bowling attacks and one of them will win the series. Some people may not be sure which is better at the moment, but I don't think there'll be much doubt after three Test matches."