While two teams ranked 3 and 4 (formerly, 5) try to reduce each other to ashes, the real test of cricketing character is happening in a different part of the Southern Hemisphere.
India tours South Africa, in what might be the most important series in the 6 months preceding the World Cup. With all due respect to The Ashes, this one is a much better series on paper.
Let me build this up before the test series starts.
The Teams, in the recent past
South Africa played 5 ODIs and 2 tests in the Middle East vs Pakistan, and the report card isn't very nice. South Africa were stretched to full extent in the ODIs (which they managed to win 3-2), and couldn't buy 20 wickets in either test, though the surfaces weren't very encouraging. Yes a 0-0 dry series.
India hosted NZ for 3 tests and 5 ODIs. India won the test series 1-0, after saving one test from almost losing, and a not so exciting draw in another, before enjoying a crushing win in the last test. And, for the ODIs, India tested their bench strength, and it seemed pretty strong one as it gave the AlreadyAeaten4-0AtTheHandsOfBangladesh NZ another 5-0 series defeat. Black caps are so whitewashed now :-P
For both the teams, this is one series to prove their worth before they fine-tune their ammunition for the world cup. And also, prove to the world who is the real World No.1 . South Africa haven't had good home series vs Australia or England coming into this series. And India have never won a series in South Africa. So, the spices are on your plate, bite them! Its gonna be that hot!
India have enjoyed quite some success in the subcontinent, had been reasonably good in England and West Indies and in New Zealand, but are yet to "conquer" Australia and South Africa (FYI, S.A. have beaten Australia in Australia, before they lost fort to Aus). With that at the back of their mind, and comments from people like Sangakkara pointing out that it is strange for India to be on top of the rankings despite never winnings a series at Aus, SA or SL, the pressure is more on India to justify their ranking.
India is 13 points ahead of SA, so even a loss wouldn't matter much on paper, but the reputation will be at stake.
South Africa, meanwhile, will try to make a name for themselves once again, at home. Their pace battery is pretty much fixed up, and batting is all set, but the momentum is missing.
South Africa will be going in with the combination of Smith and Petersen. After McKenzie was done away for reasons I'm not sure about, Petersen has fit into the side well, and has had a good series in the Middle East coming into the test series. Smith will be looking to get over his batting worries of facing Zaheer Khan and try to lead from the front.
At number 3 is the man living on cloud 9, Hashim Amla. He has been on a form that I just can't script into a writing. lets just say, he is the best batsman alive on Earth now by now, I mean NOW). Following the genius, are Kallis and AB de Villiers. The last three names I mentioned form one of the most resilient middle order the 21st century has seen. Not only is it hard to break through all of them, it is near impossible to stop the leakage of runs. You just can't control them. Each of them is vastly different in style, and bound to make every fielder cry.
To fill in at number 6 will be Ashwell Prince, for the first test atleast. he gets the nod ahead of JP Duminy. Talented, and has to return to form if he wants to keep that place. When South Africa were 0-2 down to Australia, Prince came in as an opener in his comeback test, scored a century and helped South Africa gain some pride. He was about to be given the captaincy, but it was handed over to Kallis instead, so, he needn't carry additional pressure on his comeback game. At number 7 will be the dependable keeper, Mark Boucher, who can play freely, as well as extend the play with the tail.
Indian openers, Delhi Duo, Sehwag and Gambhir are both in form. Gambhir, got into form in the ODIs after he made his comeback from injury in the test series and led India in the ODI series whitewash victory. When in good touch, the two can pile on huge partnerships at good pace. Not only do they form a left-right combo, they also have a different approach, which not many bowling sides can break through easily.
Rest of the top and the middle order is here on a mission. They want to win the series here. They have been here time and again, but failed to win it all. Dravid, Sachin, Laxman. Combined, they have saved and won many many games, but the three, along with Sehwag, average just over 36 per head an innings in South Africa. Laxman has the most, at 41.11 an innings. The centurion from the last test vs NZ (Dravid), ICC cricketer of the year (Sachin), and the man who saved 3 tests in a row for India (Laxman) now have their task cut out, to bite into the South African pace battery and handle the middle order on true tracks. Not only will the ball bounce and swing, but the Indians have to be patient to play the nagging South African line-and-length bowling.
At number 6 is a toss between the out-of-form Raina, or the new boy, Pujara. Raina is jumping in and out of form in the recent past, and Pujara has been rubbing his hands in expectation for years. As of now, the selectors might want to go with Raina, in spite of Pujara's wonderful experience on foreign soil.
At 7, captain and 'keeper Dhoni will come in. His form has been nothing great to tell about. It will be good to add some good batting numbers to his glorious captaincy tales.
The Sharp Shooters
South African pace battery will have the ripping pace of Steyn and the tall, lanky, fast, Morne Morkel. While Steyn has the fiery pace and swing, Morkel will present the toughest challenge to the Indians - the short ball. Indians will have a good smell of the Kookaburra ball in the series as the SA bowlers will target the chests and head of the Indian batting line-up, which has clearly stated its worst weakness. The third seamer will be either Tsotsobe or Mclaren. While Tsotsobe has been bowling well in the recent past, McLaren can bat. And of course, there is the world's most complete cricketer since Sir Gary Sobers, Jacques Kallis. And, since Botha is released from the squad for the first test, it is sure that Paul Harris will be the lone spinner for SA. At 6'3", he is one of the tallest spinners in international cricket, but has had a liking towards bowling to Indian batsmen, Sachin, in particular...
India are troubled with the news from Zaheer Khan's doctors, who say that Zak has a hamstring injury, but it is a 50-50 possibility that he'd play the first test. Assuming he does, he will be accompanied by Sreesanth and Ishant, both of who are doing well with the ball. In the event of Zak being unfit for the first test, it will be an inki-pinki-ponki betweent Jaidev Unadkat and Umesh Yadav, both unknown quantities. A reminder - VRV Singh was an unknown quantity in the 2006 tour, when he partnered Sreesanth to destroy SA in that famous Indian victory in the first test (....before losing the other two tests, and hence, the series). Bhajji, will be carrying to hopes of many fans back home, as he would be the lead spinner and home to get both luck and form stitched together for the test series on tracks that don't particularly favour spinners. In the unlikely case when the team wants to go for pure experience over 3 pacers - 1 spinner bowling strategy, Ojha will come in (read as Sree, Ishant, Bhajji, Ojha).
Batting : India hold the slight edge
Bowling : South Africa miles ahead of India on paper, unproven quantity on the field.
Result : 1-1 . A famous Indian victory, a resounding South African home dominance, and an exciting draw which might feature rain, and maybe episode 2 of "So you think Sreesanth Can Dance?".
Watch out for - Any appearance of Pujara, all-round performance of Kallis, and some spoilers, like rain.
Looking forward to a great series with some good commentators to listen to