The battle for supremacy atop the Reliance [ Get Quote ] Mobile ICC [ Images ] Test Championship table comes to a head over the next fortnight with India [ Images ] putting its mace on the line and South Africa [ Images ] primed to take possession.
In addition, there is the annual US $175,000 prize on offer to the side reaching the April 1 cut-off date in top spot. With no other team capable of achieving premier position in time, the upcoming two-match series, which begins in Nagpur on Saturday, has the added context of effectively being a world championship decider.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni's [ Images ] side enters the series in number one position, leading Graeme Smith's [ Images ] side by four ratings points. But the home side will drop to second if the Proteas win the series 1-0 or better.
India just needs to draw the series to retain the number-one position and the mace which it had snatched from South Africa on December 6 after defeating Sri Lanka [ Images ] 2-0.
Although Bangladesh will host England [ Images ], and Australia [ Images ] will travel to New Zealand [ Images ] for two Tests before the April 1 cut-off date, the result of those two series will have no impact on the number one position.
If South Africa beats India 1-0, it will go to 123 ratings points and India will drop to 122 ratings points, while in case of a 2-0 win, the Proteas will rise to 125 ratings points and India will drop to 120 ratings points.
On the other side of the coin, if India wins the series 1-0 or better, it will not only finish on top of the table but will also bring Australia in contention for a cash award of US $75,000, which will be presented to side that finishes second on the table also at the cut-off date.
While a 1-0 win will lift India to 127 ratings points and push South Africa to 118, the Proteas will drop to 116 ratings points if they lose both Tests.
Australia a sniff of No 2 position
As such, South Africa's series loss by whatever margin will give Australia a sniff of the number-two position. Ricky Ponting's [ Images ] side currently sits on 116 ratings points and will rise to 117 ratings points if it beats the Blackcaps 1-0 but will jump to 119 ratings points if it wins both matches of that series.
Last year, the race for the Test Championship mace also went down to the wire with both Australia and South Africa entering into the final series before the cut-off date with just five ratings points separating them. On that occasion Ponting and his men prevailed, winning the series 2-1 and retaining possession of the coveted mace.
While India and South Africa will be fighting hard for the top spot, there are a few very interesting individual battles on the cards as well.
Smith can challenge Gambhir for No 1 slot
In the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsman, India opener Gautam Gambhir [ Images ] is in number-one position while Graeme Smith is second, 39 points behind. If Gambhir struggles for runs and Smith manages to shine with the bat, there is a strong possibility that there'll be a change at the top.
However, if Gambhir succeeds in showing glimpses of his 2009 form, which won him the ICC Test Player of the Year award in Johannesburg last year, he could well become the 25th batsman overall to reach the 900-point mark which, in ranking terms, is the benchmark for top batsmen.
Sachin Tendulkar [ Images ] is the other batsmen who will be keeping an eye on a place in the top five. Tendulkar currently occupies ninth position but there are just 33 points separating him from fifth-placed Michael Clarke [ Images ] of Australia.
It has been almost five years since Test cricket's most successful batsman was inside the top five. He had climbed to fifth position after scoring 194 not out against Pakistan in the Multan Test in March 2004 before slipping down the order. He dropped as low as 24th position in October 2009 after the Chennai Test against Australia, which was his lowest ranking since January 1992.
The other batsmen eyeing upward movement are Virender Sehwag [ Images ] (sixth), Jacques Kallis [ Images ] (eighth), AB de Villiers [ Images ] (14th), VVS Laxman [ Images ] (19th), Hashim Alma (23rd), Ashwell Prince [ Images ] (29th) and Dhoni (30th).
Steyn well ahead in bowlers' rankings
In the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers, there are six bowlers inside the top 20 from either side with fast bowler Dale Steyn [ Images ] leading the way by a distance. Others are Zaheer Khan [ Images ] (sixth), Morne Morkel [ Images ] (seventh), Harbhajan Singh [ Images ] (eighth), Paul Harris (12th) and Ishant Sharma [ Images ] (15th).
Kallis leads the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test all-rounders with Sehwag being the highest-ranked Indian in 10th spot.
Feb 6-10: First Test, Nagpur
Feb 14-18: Second Test, Kolkata [ Images ].