What was supposed to be the battle between the No. 1 and 2 ranked Test teams is not to be, after the ICC's latest rankings reshuffle over the weekend, but the result of England v South Africa will still be keenly anticipated because there is a lot at stake. Should South Africa beat England 3-0 in the upcoming Test series, they will surge to the top of the table. England will stay top if the series is drawn. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move onto the specifics.
Going into the series opener at The Oval on Thursday, South Africa represent the sternest test of England’s credentials as the No. 1 ranked Test side, though Andrew Strauss and Co. believe they have the arsenal and confidence to overcome the tourists. England go into this series having won seven Test series in a row at home, with South Africa the last side to defeat them, four years ago. Though they struggled in the UAE and Sri Lanka, England remain a formidable side in their own conditions.
The batting is indeed strong, with Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ien Bell all in the runs of late, though South Africa will look to expose the frailties of Ravi Bopara as a Test cricketer. Jonny Bairstow’s poor debut series and Bopara’s form against Australia in the recent ODIs – 182 runs and four wickets – prompted the selectors to recall the Essex allrounder. Bopara has never fully convinced in Test cricket, and his presence at No. 6 is an opening South Africa’s pace battery will be out to smash through.
England’s bowling attack has been arguably the best in world cricket since the 2010-11 Ashes, and Andrew Strauss will be confident of his pack giving the South Africans a hard time in bowler-friendly conditions. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are a fine pace-bowling act followed by Graeme Swann, the best offspinner in the game, and Steven Finn and Graham Onions.
Finn and Bresnan will be vying for one spot, but should Bresnan be passed 100 percent fit – there are doubts as to whether he has recovered full pace since undergoing elbow surgery in December – then he will edge out Finn on the basis of his batting skills. Bresnan had a saline injection in his elbow and is being closely monitored by the team staff.
There are also concerns over Swann, who was rested for the last two ODIs against Australia and recently had a cortisone injection in his niggling elbow, and wicketkeeper Matt Prior who had a similar injection as Bresnan in both Achilles tendons. Swann and Prior are expected to be fit for the first Test, but should either suffer an injury then England will be hit hard.
Graeme Smith’s team has had this series on their minds for some time, and they landed in England with a formidable squad. Taking nothing away from Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, the strength of this team is the bowling. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are a skilled trio with each brining forward a unique skill. Morkel is flat-out pace delivered from an awkward height, Philander is skiddish with a superb ability to move the ball, and Steyn is both of these put together.
In 2008, Morkel took 15 wickets from four Tests and Steyn eight from two. Four years wiser, the fast-bowling pair has had more time to bowl in tandem and their success has formed a big part of the team’s success. Philander has had an exceptional year in Test cricket, marking his debut with eight wickets and never looking back. Currently, his Test bowling average sits at 14.15.
The weak link in the attack is Pakistan-born legspinner Imran Tahir, despite Smith’s statement that he offers the side something different. After traveling the world picking up buckets of wickets in first-class and limited-overs cricket, Tahir’s Test record is very ordinary: after seven matches he has 18 wickets at 37.05. Even the coach Gary Kirsten has backed Tahir to perform in this series, but for that the legspinner will have to be more attacking. Having played a lot of cricket in England, he could be more confident than before.
South Africa have been dealt a blow with Mark Boucher forced to retire due to an eye injury. The back-up wicketkeeper in the squad was de Villiers, and Kirsten has already said that South Africa’s ODI captain will keep at The Oval. That means that Thami Tsolekile, Boucher’s replacement, will warm the bench. The fact that de Villiers has only played as a specialist wicketkeeper in three of his 74 Tests, the last of which was in February 2010, opens up an avenue that England can look to exploit. It is not a role de Villiers would have eagerly wanted to take on, and will be physically demanding on top of having to bat against a strong England attack.
South Africa have been top of the ICC Test rankings only briefly in the past, for four months back in 2008, but have hovered close by since then. With an unbeaten record away from home since 2006, this could be the summer they soar to the top.
England: 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Ravi Bopara, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan/Steven Finn, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson.
South Africa: 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 Jacques Rudolph, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Imran Tahir, 11 Morne Morkel.