So England have arrived in South Africa – a nation of biltong, wildlife, beautiful scenery, guns, macho men, and foreigners spouting generalised clichés. South Africa is also home to the world’s best test team – or so we’re repeatedly told.
Most of us realise this is a bit of a fib though. The Proteas might be ranked number one (by a whisker) but there’s no dominant team in test cricket right now. The world is awash with teams in transition – teams with some strengths but also glaring weaknesses. South Africa and England are both typical examples.
South Africa should be slight favourites for the upcoming series (mainly because they’re at home) but England should be very competitive – not because England are particularly good, but because South Africa aren’t particularly good either.
One way to assess the merits (or otherwise) of the two teams is to look back on the sides that played in 2004/05. This was an excellent series that set England up brilliantly for the legendary 2005 Ashes. Ask yourself how many of the current XIs would get into the teams that played ten years ago …
The South African team included Smith, Gibbs, DeVilliers, Kallis, Rudolph, Boucher, Pollock, Boje, Nel, Ntini and Steyn. Of the current vintage, only Amla and Morkel would force their way into that team (Rudolph and Nel would make way).
England’s line-up was Trescothick, Strauss, Butcher, Vaughan, Thorpe, Flintoff, G Jones, Giles, Hoggard, S Jones and Harmison. Only Cook and Root (replacing Strauss and Butcher) and Anderson (replacing Hoggard) would be worth a place in the 2004 side.
Giles and Geraint Jones were both marginally better than Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow at their primary disciplines. Stuart Broad misses out because Harmison was the number one ranked bowler in the world in December 2004 and Simon Jones was, well, Simon Jones.
To briefly summarise, the juggernaut facing Vaughan’s England ten years ago contained eight world class players: Smith, Gibbs, DeVilliers, Kallis, Boucher, Pollock, Ntini and Steyn. Nel was also rather handy. Amla’s bunch have just four: the skipper himself (although he’s struggling badly for form), DeVilliers, Steyn and Morkel. One might argue, somewhat snidely, that the current side are half as good.
Having said that, it should still be an interesting series. But that’s not because it’s a mouth-watering tussle between two heavyweights slugging it out for a world title. It will be interesting because both sides have so many unknown quantities desperately searching for consistency. Alastair Cook is the only solid opener on either side. The other three top order players (Hales, Elgar, Van Zyl) have been selected more in hope than expectation. They’re all desperate punts because the alternatives have been found wanting.
Meanwhile, the respective middle-orders are also brittle and unproven. We all wish Stokes, Taylor and maybe even Ballace (if he’s dropped down the order) the best; but let’s face it, they won’t have to play too well to match an out of sorts du Plessis and Duminy. South Africa are so worried about their batting that they’ve asked AB de Villiers to keep wicket. I wonder what Alec Stewart makes of that decision?
The series will also be dramatic because batting collapses should be frequent. Although neither team is world-class from top to bottom, both possess very good seam bowling attacks. If the pitches suit the pacemen, there could be spectacular carnage. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s carnage whatever surfaces are prepared. I suggest we all kick back with some turkey sandwiches, a tumbler or two of brandy, and enjoy the fireworks.
Trevor Bayliss has already confirmed that Hales will open with Cook and that Bairstow will keep wicket. There’s no definitive news on whether Compton or Ballance will bat at three (although I suspect it will be the former).
I’d like to know your views on this. Although we all suspected that Hales would open, and it’s only fair that Bairstow gets another opportunity, is it right to make such announcements before the warm-up games? What happens, for example, if Buttler makes big runs and Jonny struggles?
Many people are climbing back aboard the Jos bandwagon after his impressive ODI performances in the UAE. Personally I wouldn’t read too much into these outings. One-day cricket is a completely different kettle of fish, and Jos has looked like a haddock out of water in the test arena thus far. However, it’s not like Bairstow has played convincing either. Maybe England should simply select the man in form when the first test comes?
The other bit of news is that Mark Footitt will get an early chance to impress in the warm-ups. EMS! approves of this message! Footitt has decent pace and his left-arm angle offers variation. Mitchell Johnson used to give the South Africans nightmares. I’m not saying that Footitt is in Mitch’s league, but he’ll give them more to think about than Woakes or Jordan.