The most eagerly anticipated Test series between South Africa and Australia begins this week. Stuart Hess sizes up the combatants. File photo: Anesh Debiky

South Africa’s muted response to the barbs being directed at them by the Australian team should in no way be misinterpreted as timidity.

It’s never been the South African way to trade insults through the media. They’re secure in the know-ledge that their preparation has gone well and that they have within their ranks the players capable of beating this cocksure Australian team.

Make no mistake, though, this three-Test series, starting at Centurion on Wednesday, will be the sternest examination of South Africa’s credentials since they ascended to the No1 position in the Test rankings.

Australia have rediscovered their confidence after a period in which they were searching for an identity and for players capable of producing success. They were snarling and nasty operators in that Test series against England on home soil.

Before coming here, captain Michael Clarke talked about playing in the traditional, Australian way – which is aggressive and getting in the face of the opposition. England couldn’t stomach it and the recent unravelling in their ranks shows just how hard Australia hit them.

The South Africans looked a relaxed group in the last week as they began nine days of preparations – unusually long for a home series – at the Wanderers. Therein, perhaps, is an indication of the concern in their camp. Most of them have been playing 20-over cricket in the last month and in the case of Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers, recovering from injuries.

Coach Russell Domingo was pleased with what they got out of a three-day warm-up game against an SA Composite XI as it gave the players an opportunity to get back into first-class mode, while the bowlers got some miles in the legs.

The major question for South Africa is who will fill the No 7 spot in the order.

Ryan McLaren has received public backing from Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis and didn’t do anything wrong during the three-day match at the Wanderers.

Wayne Parnell and Rory Kleinveldt would be the other candidates for the position, but there are concerns about them. Parnell has the ability to change a match in three overs, but he could lose it for his side just as easily as he wins it for them. Kleinveldt’s batting is a worry because he remains inconsistent.

Domingo stated this week that they have a starting line-up in mind, but will want to assess conditions at SuperSport Park before making a final decision.

The conditions at the venue for the first Test are something of a mystery. The Australians trained there last week, but David Warner said it was impossible to tell which strip would be prepared for the match.

South Africa have won 14 of the 18 Tests played in Centurion, indicating a fondness for a venue where they always get excellent support. Their only defeat there came in the infamous “leather jacket” Test when Hansie Cronjé gave England victory in a contrived match.

They’ve won five of the last six Tests played there by an innings, with England’s dramatic draw – when No11 Graham Onions hung around for 20 minutes – the only match South Africa haven’t won there in the last nine years.

Domingo wasn’t so sure what made Centurion such a happy hunting ground, but he did express concern that the pitch would be slower than the South Africans would prefer. “It’s changed there, a bit like Durban in the last few years, it’s gotten slower,” said Domingo.

The Australian bowlers certainly won’t mind a quick pitch. Their bowling during the Ashes was superb, led by Mitchell Johnson.

The South Africans faced a lot of left-arm fast bowling in their practice match, ostensibly to prepare them for the angle of delivery from Johnson. However, they must be wary of not spending too much time on Johnson and forgetting about Ryan Harris, a crafty seam bowler, and Peter Siddle, a real workhorse.

Those two form the backbone of an attack that also features off-spinner Nathan Lyon – who enjoys giving the ball a rip, especially early.

However, Shane Watson, an important cog in the attack, was yesterday ruled out of the first Test with a calf strain. His absence will leave Australia to decide between two options: a like-for-like replacement would be Moises Henriques, who impressed on Australia’s disappointing tour to India last year, or a seventh batsman in Phil Hughes, who made 83 in the tourists’ “centre-practice” match at the Wanderers on Friday.

Watson’s absence will further increase concerns about Australia’s batting. Alex Doolan is now almost certain to slot in at No 3, further highlighting an area that was masked by the whitewash of England. A good and relentless attack like South Africa’s will expose those weaknesses.

South Africa have, of course, been careful not to say much about that. Skipper Graeme Smith, when asked in mid-week about Australia’s batting problems, left it to the journalists to write it up.

“When you’ve played against Australia enough, you learn to sift through a lot of the bull, dot dot dot,” he said.

“One of our great abilities is that we are humble and we focus on ourselves. Internal strength is important. We don’t feel the need to get caught up in that stuff. This series will be decided by the cricket that gets played over the 15 days.”

Cricket Australia yesterday added Shaun Marsh to their squad for the three-Test series against South Africa after Shane Watson was ruled out of the first match.

Tour Schedule

Wednesday, February 12: 1st Test, SuperSport Park, Centurion, 10.30am

Thursday, February 20: 2nd Test, St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, 10.30am

Saturday, March 1: 3rd Test, Newlands, Cape Town, 10.30am

Sunday, March 9: 1st T20I, St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, 2.30pm

Wednesday, March 12: 2nd T20I, Kingsmead, Durban, 6pm

Friday, March 14: 3rd T20I, SuperSport Park, Centurion, 6pm - Sundy Independent