South Africa v England: Battle of the Middleweights

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.

Team News

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.


James Morgan  


  • The 04/05 series in SA was Strauss’ best as a player – there is no way Cook would displace him in that line up. Root might squeeze in for Butcher. Again this was Hoggard at his very best… On the other hand Moeen would have been picked ahead of Giles by Fletcher.

    I also think home advantage to SA is huge especially how aggressive the crowds can get.

    Back on topic – Finn joining the tour is good news, although it will be a bit player heavy now with 17 in the squad.

    Footitt needs to get picked – his pace and change of angle will make a difference and the foot marks will also help Moeen, especially as SA don’t appear to have a spinner.

    I expect the pitches to be as hard and fast as possible to help Steyn and Morkle – but I think that will help our bowlers too, so long as they remember to pitch it up.

    The team for the first game will be
    Cook, Hales, Compton, Rooooot, Taylor, Stokes, Bairstow, Ali, Broad, Anderson, Footitt – which seems almost as good as we could have it right now.

    Big ask for Hales who needs to up his game against quick bowling.

  • I hope that I am proved wrong, but I don’t think that Hales has the technique to be a Test opener. As I said on an earlier thread, I think Vince looks to have more potential at Test level.

  • I have to say, I never understand all this talk about awkward “angle of attack”. Even my U13s have figured out that as long as to change your stance to align with the bowler and not the umpire, the angle the ball comes at is always the same.

  • I hope they play Compton at 3. If Hales is out cheaply, which obviously quite a lot of people fear, I would rather see the more mature and experienced Compton playing with the very self-contained and ‘in his bubble’ Cook. I think he will cope better than Ballance. He may not be as aggressive as some would like but I would prefer to see us advance slowly to 50-1 after 20 overs than 10-2 after 3.

    I also think Bairstow should keep. Just because Buttler made runs in the ODI doesn’t mean he will suddenly do the same at test level and wouldn’t it be better to keep that confidence high for the short format matches?

    ps I wish this lovely website didn’t insist on altering my spelling of Ballance!

    • It’s infuriating isn’t it Maggie. Sorry about that. I have the same problem on Twitter, Facebook etc. It’s the auto correct. I don’t know how to solve the problem without turning the spelling off.

  • Faf Du Plessis seems oddly unrated by English sources. He had a shocker in India (including at least three freakish dismissals) but it isn’t going to be too relevant to the bowling and pitches he is about to face.

    His technique isn’t particularly pure or pretty but he has been mightily effective. If Anderson or Broad can get on top of him, I think England will get something out of the series.

    • His test career started off really well and he was averaging over 50 not long ago. it’s plummeted to just over 40 now though. I think I’m a little critical of du Plessis because he failed on the occasions I saw him play for Lancashire. I thought he looked pretty average. Perhaps he impressed in other games I didn’t see. He’s obviously matured a bit since those days.

  • I’d say De Villiers and Steyn today are better than the 2004 vintage (when they were just starting), but, that apart, your argument holds good. On the England selection issue, it has to be Finn or Footitt. Woakes and Jordan are good cricketers, but not really test bowlers.

  • No chance I’d pick Cook over the 2004 version of Strauss unless the series was in Asia. No way any current England bowler would displace the Hogster in that side either – 26 wickets in the series and 12 at Jo’burg, including 7 in an afternoon to win the match in one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen by an England bowler. Harmison took 9 wickets in 5 Tests in that series…

    For this series I’d play Buttler and bat him at 8 – I have a feeling he’s got his head sorted out and Jonny has the same faults in technique he had 5 years ago. Erratic as he may be, sides fear Buttler’s going to take a game away from them in an session, and he has the rare ability to occasionally do that. Looking forward to the series though. I hope Footitt gets a go, too.

  • Will be interested to see who bats at 3 – I wonder if Bayliss may opt for Ballance’s extra experience rather than Compton – I would like to see the former down the order though. I think Taylor has the game to eventually play at 3.

    I would play Buttler as low down the order as reasonably possible and give him instructions to keep the strike and treat it as a ODI game – I think that way you don’t lose his game-changing ability from the Test arena. Often it won’t work, but when it does he’ll leave a real mark on the game.

    Interesting to see the older Curran play remarkably well his England Lions T20 debut – possible that he may be fast tracked into the full internationals in a year or two with his brother to follow? They’re both the best young England prospects I reckon.

  • Simon Jones over Stuart Broad. Not for me.
    Yes Jones bowled well in a 5 man attack and we’ll never know how good he could have been, but Broad is the better all round bowler.

    As for the series, a few weeks ago I was very pessimistic, even thought we could be staring down the barrel of a 4-0 defeat.
    But South Africa’s performance in India and our ODI efforts have changed my mind a little. I know many will argue that neither will have a bearing on the upcoming test series however I thought South Africa looked a bedraggled bunch led by a pretty clueless captain.
    We will need a strong start. I hope we are bowling on Boxing Day and can get on top, our batting is fragile and as normal we will need our bowlers to bail them out.
    I don’t think we can score enough runs to win the series, but if we can win a test I think that’s a successful series. Maybe a battling 2-1 defeat.

    • It’s about balance really. Jones was quicker and offers reverse swing and a skiddy style. I’m not sure what Broad brings that Flintoff or Harmison wouldn’t. I think Broad is a good bowler though, don’t get me wrong :-)

  • I have no real concerns on the bowling front, whether we play Footit or Finn, doesn’t really matter to me. They will compliment Anderson and Broad well. My main concern is once again the top order . Again. Hales opening (gamble) and Compton or Ballance at number 3 (gamble). Taylor ( great potential but still untested and unproven at top test leve) Can see a lot of occasions when it will be 10-2 or 20-3

    Don’t agree with dropping Buttler either. Better keeper than Bairstow and a better bat too. Just going through a bat patch but he’s a good player and will come good. My bet is he will have his place back by the end of the series

  • Yes Faf is pretty good (as good as Gibbs?) and while he will miss the first 2 tests philander would also be pushing for a spot in that team – ok he’s behind pollock but still better average than England’s current top two bowlers.

    And broad for harmison any day.


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