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Aussies’ ‘No.1’ challenge

Johannesburg: One of the more curious cricketing statistics, that South Africa have not beaten Australia in a home Test series since 1970, will come under challenge when the two countries begin a three-match series in Centurion on Wednesday.

The bookmakers make South Africa favourites, being the No. 1 team in the rankings, where they will stay even if they lose. However, Australia, resurgent after their 5-0 whitewash of England, are dangerous when confident.

Graeme Smith’s side have won the previous two series in Australia, but since South Africa’s readmission to the international cricketing fraternity in 1992, after 22 years of exclusion, Australia have not lost on African soil.

The 1-1 draw here in November 2011 was memorable for Australia’s second-innings dismissal for 47 in Cape Town, and their successful pursuit of a target of 310 in Johannesburg.

While South Africa will feel the absence of Jacques Kallis, who retired after the Boxing Day Test against India, Australia will also be weakened by the loss of Shane Watson, who has a calf strain. Watson’s discipline and ability to pick up useful wickets as a fourth seam bowler will be badly missed.

It had been intended to move Watson from No. 3 to No. 6, where Phil Hughes is expected to slot in. Alex Doolan, the Tasmanian, is set to make his Test debut at No. 3 after George Bailey was dropped. Shaun Marsh flew into South Africa at the weekend as emergency cover for Watson, who may not be fit for the second Test in Port Elizabeth starting on February 20.

Australia’s preparations for the opening Test have been hampered by persistent rain in Potchefstroom, where they based themselves on arrival. A three-day warm-up match was abandoned without a ball being bowled and they have not been able to practise outdoors as much as hoped. South Africa, by contrast, were able to play a three-day match at the Wanderers last week before spending two days bonding at a Karongwe Game Reserve.

Australia will also have to contend with South Africa’s formidable record in Centurion, a cricketing fortress since it first staged a Test match in 1995.

Of the 18 Tests played there, South Africa have won 14 and lost only one. That sole defeat arose when Hansie Cronje and Nasser Hussain contrived a result on the final day of a rain-affected match.

The pace and bounce of Centurion will suit both pace attacks. Predictably last week, Michael Clarke claimed his was the best in the world. “It’s a big claim to make — better than Steyn, Philander and Morkel,”

Kallis’s replacement is likely to be Ryan McLaren, which will give South Africa a reliable fourth seam bowler.