Short and sweet is unfortunately all we’re going to get out of a clash between the world’s top two Test nations. Five Tests would’ve been ideal (the days of six Test series are long gone) and four preferable.
Alas, we’re left with only three.
On paper the sides are very evenly matched. Both bowling units have three players ranked in the ICC’s top 10 and the English attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and (most likely) Tim Bresnan is very closely matched to the Proteas attack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir.
The difference could well be the fifth bowling option, where South Africa can utilise Jacques Kallis, who is undoubtedly superior to any English option – Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott or Ravi Bopara.
Whatever Kallis’s role, he cannot be taken lightly and is arguably South Africa’s most important player given his prominence with bat, ball and in the slips.
The sad end to Mark Boucher’s career in Taunton, however, has made AB de Villiers the key component of South Africa’s side. Alongside being a prolific run scorer in the middle order, de Villiers will now be charged with keeping wicket in the first Test at the Oval.
de Villiers is one of those annoyingly talented people who is seemingly brilliant at everything he turns his hand to. He is a tremendous fielder, too. The concern for South Africa is that he might be overburdened by the keeping responsibilities, so Thami Tsolekile has been called up to resume his Test career, having last featured against England at Port Elizabeth in December 2004.
Should things go well at the Oval, however, de Villiers could well keep the gloves as he would afford South Africa an extra specialist batsman. Graeme Smith would open with Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla would slot in at three followed by Kallis, de Villiers, JP Duminy and Jacques Rudolph ahead of the bowlers.
With the might of the bowling unit, that XI would take some stopping. Assuming Tsolekile will come in at Leeds, Petersen is the likely fall guy (unless he makes himself undroppable at the Oval…), with everyone moving up one in the order.
It is a very strong touring side that will test England’s resolve and right to hang onto the number one Test ranking that was taken from a feeble India side in 2011.
England, however, reached top slot on merit. There have been wobbles of late against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but on home soil they are a different proposition. No one can master the English conditions like Anderson and Broad and they will test the entire Proteas line up.
England lacks the world class fifth bowling option, but that hasn’t exactly hampered the side’s progress. Swann is also a superior operator to Tahir in the spin department. The side’s fielding is also probably ahead of South Africa’s.
This is a real opportunity for England to show that they are worthy number ones. If they can see off South Africa, they will be in good shape for the tour of India that lies in wait. To do that, the batsmen need to keep up the decent form discovered against the West Indies that was missing over the winter.
Bopara will likely get a third (and likely final) shot at Test cricket, slotting in at number six after Jonny Bairstow disappointed as a replacement for Samit Patel, who disappointed as a replacement Eoin Morgan, who disappointed against Pakistan.
It’s the only problem slot in England’s order at the moment, so it’s important that Bopara does well. If he carries his form from the recent ODIs against Australia into the Test arena, he’ll be fine. He’s ready to crack it. Or that has to be that.
It’s a very tough series to call, especially given the woeful weather that England has been experiencing. If that refuses to lift, it’ll finish 0-0. I think there’ll be enough cricket for a 1-0 series win for England…
By Miles ReucroftTweet
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