This series could not have come at a better time, or place, and will surely be the highlight of the festive season. Christmas gifts disappoint, holiday destinations underwhelm, and celebration indulgence leads to everyday indigestion. This Test series though – confirmed crowd pleaser!
We all know the obvious: both teams have recently suffered crushing Test series defeats in spin friendly conditions, both teams are a lot more comfortable on seamer friendly pitches, and both teams have a fair amount to prove with the bat.
Let’s go a little deeper from here though so that come December 26th, you are as raring to go as the players themselves.
The teams at a glance
Their batting lineup has been vulnerable ever since the departure of Petersen, Smith and Kallis, the latter two in particular being near impossible to replace.
But time is starting to run out for their successors to make this batting unit a solid one again. The openers are uncertain, where Amla and De Villiers bat still seems a bit of a mystery, and Du Plessis and Duminy not kicking on as senior players is a massive worry.
An inspired new ball spell from Broad and Anderson in Durban could well create a 40/4 situation, and there really isn’t much left to get them to three figures from there. The Indian debacle uncovered some pretty inconvenient truths about this Proteas Test side, and this will no doubt fire the English up, especially after what they achieved in the Ashes with the ball.
Naturally, the other side of the coin provides the obvious ‘bounce back’ school of thought. This Proteas Test team is still ranked no.1 in the world, and has been for ages. Everyone has bad spells – the English themselves suffered a 5-0 Ashes loss in Australia, only to then reverse the result 3-1 in the next encounter against them down under. The Proteas may have weaknesses, but these are still some quality players here, quality players more motivated than ever to get back on the horse.
Things are never easy or straightforward with this English team, and their headline hungry press would really never have it any other way. A team that has a reputation for suddenly losing form away from home, they are often found wanting when tested, and tested they will be in South Africa.
Throughout their trials and tribulations over the last two years though, they have developed a rather dangerous side that possesses some genuine threats. On their day, Anderson and Broad are simply unstoppable. It pains you (and me) to admit this, but it is the truth, especially with Broad who seems to finally be maturing into as Test player. Joe Root is the no. 1 ranked Test batsman in the world, and you can’t argue this. He is every bit AB de Villiers’ equal going into this series, and he has some more than able support around him with the willow.
The English tour pretty well in South Africa too, and helped by the current Rand/Pound exchange rate, they are set to have a lot of fun in the sun this festive season both on and off the field.
The KP question will resurface with the team heading to His homeland, and the exclusion of Bell (right or wrong) will question the levels of experience against a seasoned attack. But I think this team has every right to be quietly confident here.
Possible starting lineups
The Proteas are putting everything into a fast start and getting back to winning ways. They have given AB de Villiers the gloves so they can play the extra batsman. It’s a short term, relatively short-sighted play, but it gives them a legit top 7 that will essentially look like this:
2: Van Zyl
4: De Villiers (wk)
5: Du Plessis
Amla and De Villiers at 3 and 4 are key. These are the positions they must cement, and in doing so the other links will pull together around them. There is a sense of inevitability around Amla returning to form, and by making the number 3 spot his own, this batting lineup instantly looks a good one. This is, of course, if the openers can provide a decent platform, something that Elgar and Van Zyl must do, or their time in this team could be up.
The burden of keeping hasn’t hindered de Villiers with the bat yet, mostly because he can do whatever he wants, such is his talent. The batsmen below him though, just like the ones above him, are also playing for their places. Du Plessis and Duminy have proven themselves at this level, but have since tapered off form wise. Duminy in particular has a lot to prove, so much so that the still relatively unknown Bavuma is probably the batsman with the least pressure on him.
I can’t remember a case of a Proteas batting lineup that ever had so much to prove, and against an opponent like England, at home, there is no better situation to come up with the goods.
The form of Dale Steyn is a concern: expected to be fit come Boxing Day, his lack of game time will be a worry. No Vernon Philander for the first two tests, so Morne Morkel to continue building on his good form from the India series. Kagiso Rabada impressed in less than favourable conditions on debut, his pace and energy now on home tracks will be more than a handful.
Kyle Abbott will presumably get the 4th seamer spot, and a good thing too as he adds great pressure and intensity, complementing the other three faster bowlers. Dane Piedt is in the squad as the lone spinner, but he may not crack the nod as Duminy and Elgar offer the ‘slow’ options.
Even more so than South Africa, England has an unsettled top order. Who partners Cook is still up for debate, with Alex Hales being the man in the first warm up match on tour. Many think Hales is the future, but he has been less than convincing since blazing his way onto the ODI scene, and with two failures in the first match on tour, he could be a cheap wicket against a precise Proteas pace attack.
Does the re-selected Compton then take the spot? Fair choice for me as he has done the best out of the mostly failed other options, the latest being Moeen Ali.
Then do you play Ballance at 3?
They look good from there in the middle order.
7: Bairstow/Buttler (wk)
Root, as mentioned earlier, is the key man, and Taylor really deserves a chance to make the no.5 position his own. Stokes is such a threat coming in at 6, and then the batting goes really deep.
Who gets the gloves must be a headache for the touring side. There is no doubting that Buttler is going to develop into something special, and provide the ultimate option for England as wicketkeeper/batsman. His form in this format is shaky though, with Bairstow the ‘safer’ option.
The English still don’t know what to do with Moeen Ali. While there’s no doubting his talent, he’s been unable to really kick on with his Test career as his roles are always changing. In conditions that won’t favour spin, greater emphasis will be placed on his batting and this could put him ahead of Patel. But in seamer conditions England could even pick both Bairstow and Buttler.
Broad and Anderson will naturally spearhead the attack. Then you have the backup of Stokes. Here the true value of the all-rounder comes into play as England now has choice for a 4th seamer. You would naturally want Finn in these conditions, but if not fully ready yet, then the left arm variation of Footit could be the desirable option.
Jordan can do a job too, and was okay in the West Indies, but he hardly strikes fear into the opposition. A pace attack of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Stokes could be plan A, but it depends on the fitness and injuries of all the bowlers. With Ali and Patel to take pace off and add some batting, there is a strong team in here somewhere.
Clash of the captains
It may seem overly clichéd to think this, but the captain who comes out on top could well take the series.
Amla’s captaincy is still under the spotlight after he reluctantly took over from Graeme Smith, and in 12 Tests in charge he has scored 674 runs, with just 2 centuries. Ignore the one sided Tests versus West Indies, and he’s averaging just 25 as skipper.
That is not the Amla we know and admire, and whether he is the man to get the most out of this squad is still up for debate.
Cook on the other hand is an established leader of his squad. His batting can be feast or famine, but he’s a solid campaigner with extensive experience against South Africa to draw upon.
Ball very much in Amla’s court then.
The local conditions
After that Indian series, everyone is becoming obsessed with the pitches, and home teams getting something from them. Don’t expect fierce green tops though, as this could backfire terribly against the Proteas when you consider the English attack.
Local grounds also wouldn’t mind 5 days of beer sales from the Barmy Army, so the pitches aren’t going to play that big of a role, and will create a nice fair contest.
I don’t think there has been a more significant first Test in a series for quite some time. Another loss for the Proteas could really put them on the ropes, and catch up is not a game they are necessarily mentally fit to play right now.
The Indian tour scars will be eliminated with a win, but very much re-opened with a loss. The Proteas know this and will tap into everything they have for an opening success, and this added focus is the difference between the two teams.
You could argue some differences between bat and ball; selection wise England are perhaps a little more unsettled, but I think the two teams are actually more evenly matched than people may know.
Cock on block: South Africa 2-1