Brisbane: Graeme Smith is fully conscious of the environment his No. 1-ranked team will face on Friday in the series-opening match against Australia, even if South Africa hasn't played a Test at the Gabba since 1963. With five of the world's top nine pacemen in action and with the top Test ranking at stake, the three-match series is destined to be fast and furious.
Given it's a year since Australia was bowled out for a humiliating 47 in an eight-wicket defeat in Cape Town, and given the green tinge to the Gabba pitch and the constant banter this week about short-pitch bowling, the indications are it'll be difficult for the batsmen in Brisbane.
"When you've got fast bowlers on either side, when you come to places like ... the Gabba, it's going to be a topic of discussion," Smith said of the pre-match hype. "It's nothing new for us. We've come through these things before."
Smith has a pace battery containing Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander — the two top-ranked bowlers in Test cricket — and Morne Morkel, who're supplemented by veteran allrounder Jacques Kallis and spinner Imran Tahir in a well-balanced attack. Observers this week have reported Steyn has been bowling quicker in the nets than usual.
"You can bowl the speed of light, but how effective can you be — that's the key," Smith said. "Dale has proven that he can be both (fast and effective) — hopefully he'll show that in this Test match."
South Africa hasn't lost a series away from home since a 2-0 defeat at Sri Lanka in 2006 — including a 2-1 series win in Australia in 2008-09 — a point Smith was keen to underline as he shrugged off reports of an Australian dossier targeting flaws in each of his players that was leaked in the media on Thursday.
Australia does have some good intelligence on the opposition, particularly after appointing Mickey Arthur as coach. Arthur, who was South Africa coach between 2005 and 2010, will be guiding a team in a Test against the South Africans for the first time in this series. Smith said some comments by Arthur and some of the media reports this week just added to South Africa's motivation to win.
"You don't travel from 2006 and be unbeaten away from home if you don't have the capability to adapt, to think on your feet and if you don't have the skills," he said. "I don't expect to see us too emotional about things."
In the so-called "Protea File" published by the Courier-Mail newspaper, the Australians are reportedly set to target Hashim Amla in a "psychological war" and have targeted Smith as susceptible to lbw dismissals.
"I guess it's not that secret any more," Smith joked, adding that team's keeping profiles on other players wasn't exactly unusual. "We try to keep it in the guys' heads as much as possible so dossiers aren't left lying around!
"All of us have played enough against Australia, we know what it's going to take to be victorious here — Our preparation has been really clinical and intelligent."
The Australians haven't lost a Test at the Gabba since 1988, but have an unsettled team. Opener Shane Watson was ruled out due to injury replaced by uncapped Victoria left-hander Rob Quiney, who will make his Test debut batting at age 30.
Ricky Ponting has been under a fitness cloud with a niggling hamstring problem and the bowling lineup will be missing Pat Cummins, who burst onto the international stage with a man-of-the-match performance when Australia rebounded to win at Johannesburg to level last year's series 1-1.
Skipper Michael Clarke will delay finalizing his starting XI until Friday, wanting a last-minute look at the pitch and the weather conditions which could be overcast and assist seam bowling. He did confirm that Ponting was "fully fit" and would play.
"At this stage we're still deciding whether we play four fast bowlers or do we play three fast bowlers and (spinner) Nathan Lyon," Clarke said. "It's important to wait and see what conditions we have tomorrow morning and then we'll work out what the best XI is."
Clarke played down reports of the leaked dossier, saying all the information was common knowledge anyway.
"The most important thing for me is not what you say it's about what you do," Clarke said. "There's been enough said in the media and the series has been built up beautifully, two very strong cricket teams, now it's about what we do."
Clarke replaced Ponting as captain after Australia's quarterfinal exit at the 2011 World Cup and that embarrassing defeat at Cape Town was among his first matches at the helm. Since then, Australia rebounded with a 4-0 series win at home over the then No. 2-ranked India and an away series win in the West Indies.
Australia pacemen Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle are now sixth and seventh in the international bowling rankings and James Pattinson is expected to support them as they bid to challenge South Africa's highly-regarded pace trio.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw plenty of short stuff, that's for sure," Clarke predicted. "The young quicks know what they have to do, they know how important it is to execute their skills, but I've made it very clear they need to keep the same aggression they had last summer against India.
"We know there is a line that you can't cross, but we'll be pushing that line."
Australia can reclaimed the No. 1 ranking with a comprehensive series win, but that's unlikely against a South African team that has developed a reputation for being consistently at the top of the game.
"To come to Australia with a formidable side and know that you can compete over here in the cut and thrust ... is a nice feeling to have," Smith said Friday, responding to questions about how long his team can reign atop the rankings.
"We'd love the opportunity to create a legacy. You've got to take steps at a time. In international cricket today, there's a number of teams who have touched the No. 1 ranking. This is the next stepping stone for us, and it's a big challenge. We're not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We believe we have the capabilities to create that, but you've got to go and earn it."
Australia: Michael Clarke, David Warner, Ed Cowan, Rob Quiney, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Matthew Wade, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Lyon
South Africa: Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir