The most eagerly awaited Test series in a year. The most ridiculously shortened Test series since the last time South Africa played a major opponent. The winner of the series will finish as number one in the world, though if South Africa win by one Test they will be top by only 0.16 points. A draw will see England maintain their position at the top of the table, but by a reduced margin.
The teams are almost impossibly close on paper. The series will feature the two best bowling attacks in the world and arguably the two best bowlers in the world in Dale Steyn and Jimmy Anderson. Steyn has had the better career and Jimmy has a long way to go to catch him, but over the last few years they have been on level terms with Jimmy actually faring slightly better. Steyn will have the support of the also brilliant but somewhat overshadowed Morne Morkel as well Vernon Philander. It is the last of these who I think will be most interesting to watch. He had an incredible start to his Test career, becoming the second fastest all time to fifty wickets. He is yet to really have an ‘off’ Test. But he is also yet to face top quality opposition. Of his seven Tests, five have been against Sri Lanka or New Zealand and the other two were against an Australian side in a bit of disarray. That said, he still took 5-15 in the famous 47 all out and regardless of the strength of the opposition that is quite impressive. He has, however, not quite managed to replicate that form with Somerset in the Championship. In five matches he has taken 23 wickets at 21.34. No one would argue that is anything but good, however it must be viewed in the context of the incredibly bowling friendly conditions of the early season; most sides would have been in with a chance of victory if they scored 213. It is also, rather surprisingly, a third again higher than his Test average! It will thus be very interesting to see how he gets on.
For England, Jimmy is backed up by Stuart Broad and one of Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn or Graham Onions. Bresnan is the presumable choice, though Finn and Onions are good injury replacements and (although it is very unlikely) possible fourth seamers if England decide to go that route. It is the new ball attack of Broad and Anderson that will be England’s main weapon, however. Broad is actually almost as dangerous as Jimmy as he is now the bowler that everyone expected him to be from when he first came into the side. In the past twelve months has has played ten Tests, four of them on flat Asian wickets, and taken 54 wickets at an average under 19. It’s not quite what Philander managed to do, but it is close and it is far better than what Morkel has done in the same period of time (26 wickets in eight Tests at 29). How England handle the third seamer position will be an interesting to watch. Tim Bresnan had a shaky start to the summer, but finished the series against the West Indies well whilst Finn and Onions did not manage to use the innings that they got in the third Test to demand inclusion in this series. Bresnan also strengthens the batting and as I have said before I think it strengthens it so much that England should play five bowlers. Even without the bonus of his batting, however, Bresnan is a more than capable third seamer: he bowls quick, he bowls a ‘heavy ball’ and he can get the ball to reverse swing.
That’s how the seamers align and taken as groups there is almost nothing to choose between them. Over the last few years Anderson has matched Steyn, Philander has outdone Broad with the ball and Bresnan has outdone Morkel with both bat and ball. England probably have a slight advantage due to Philander’s inexperience. Where England have a large advantage, however, is in spin. South Africa will be bringing Imran Tahir to England. Whilst he is a considerable step up from Paul Harris, he is not a match for Graeme Swann. (It’s also a personal disappointment as I think the ‘team full of Rhodesians’ joke I would have made is funnier than the ‘team full of Pakistanis’ joke I will be making instead.) The group stats support the notion that England have an advantage, but a slight one: England’s team bowling average over the last two years is 26.52 as opposed to South Africa’s 28.74, whilst the teams are neck and neck in ‘notable’ scores. England have bowled their opponents out for under 200 eleven times in 24 matches in the past two years whilst conceding 400 or more four times. In the same time period, South Africa have played 13 Tests and bowled their opponent out for under 200 six times whilst conceding two scores over 400. Interestingly, in this time period neither team has lost when conceding 400 but have each one once after doing so.
So it’s advantage England by a nose in the comparison of bowling attacks, but each side have very good batsmen as well. South Africa have the formidable Grame Smith opening and boast Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis farther down the order. The first three each average just short of fifty apiece and each over the course of fairly long Test careers. Kallis averages even higher, almost 57 in his career, but oddly has never fared well in England. In twelve Tests he only averages 29.30 with a solitary century. It will be interesting to see if he can, in what will likely be his last tour of England, turn those numbers around a bit. It will also be important for South Africa, who already have a couple of holes in their top and middle order. The injury to Boucher means that Jean-Paul Duminy will come into the side and it was already assumed that both Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph will play. Both had decent series in New Zealand (the latter scoring 156 in the last Test), but apart from that none of those three have looked particularly imposing at Test level. Petersen and Rudolph have also both played in the County Championship this year and neither have been impressive. Petersen scored a big century, but it was against Glamorgan and his other ten innings yielded only ninety runs between them. Rudolph did slightly better, but for all his starts he only passed fifty once in ten innings. It also remains to be seen how AB de Villiers will react to taking the gloves. He has batted very well when keeping wicket in ODIs, but this will be the fourth time he has kept in Tests and in the first three matches he averaged only 22.
England, by contrast, have no real stars. Only Jonathan Trott averages over fifty and his average has been going steadily downward since he first established himself. However, England also have fewer weaknesses. The only batsman to average under forty is Ravi Bopara and that is offset somewhat by the fact that Tim Bresnan at number eight actually averages over forty. At the top of the order, Andrew Strauss has scored three first class centuries already this summer with his an unbeaten 127 in his most recent innings against Notts. Alastair Cook has lost the form that saw him dominate attacks last year, but he still had a decent series against the West Indies. Ian Bell has had a good summer, but as far as the middle order goes all the attention will be on Kevin Pietersen. Embroiled in controversy since retiring from pyjama cricket earlier this summer and making some rather questionable demands of the England management, he has nonetheless been in excellent form with the bat. Most recently was his jaw-dropping innings at Guildford where he treated a skilled Lancastrian attack as though they were a team of under-elevens. He will go into the South Africa series with a point to prove and whilst it could result in more rash shots for cheap dismissals, there is also every chance that it will drive him to have a huge series. KP is someone who has tended to perform when under personal pressure and saves his best for the big stage. This is a big stage and he is under pressure. South Africa will be well advised to get to him early in his innings.
England also have an advantage down the order. Whilst AB de Villiers is a better batsman overall than Prior, he is still a part time ‘keeper. Prior is much more reliable with the gloves and it remains to be seen which de Villiers will show up with the bat. But farther down is where England could really put some pressure on South Africa. England’s last four batsmen, ie: numbers eight through eleven, have a cumulative average of 101. The corresponding average for South Africa is only 58. That is a potential extra 43 runs in each innings for England, an entire extra batsman’s worth. The upshot for me is that South Africa will probably have to get an above average performance by some of their more unheralded batsmen or a very good series from someone like Smith. Even if Kallis shows his true class, I do not think South Africa will be able to get away with having any failing batsmen.
The series may well come down to little things. Neither side have had ideal preparations. England were playing ODIs, but at least winning. South Africa, meantime, did not look too impressive in their pair of tour matches and suffered the loss of Boucher in that time. Both captains are very defensive minded, especially Smith who has previously delayed declarations absurdly long. I don’t think either side will want to be in a position of having to force a victory; it will play against the natural tendency of both captains. This will favour England at first, as they only need a draw to retain the number one ranking, so this is something South Africa will want to negate early. And then there is the weather. So much time has been lost to rain in this summer both in the international and county matches. South Africa did not play the rain particularly well against New Zealand; Smith will need to take it into account better in England.
As for a prediction, the two sides are so close that it is very hard to say. The winner may simply be whichever side manages to have fewer poor days. I think a lot will come down to whether one player, probably a batsman given the skill of the attacks, can step up and dominate the series. For South Africa that may be Smith having a series like he did in 2003; for England it may be something special from KP or a captain’s series from an in-form Strauss. With the series being as short as it is, whatever numerical result is reached is unlikely to reflect the play itself (unless one side simply fails to show up of course). As outlined above, I think where there are edges to be had most of them go to England. With that and the lighter pressure on them, something with which South Africa notoriously struggle, I think England will win the series 2-0. I would say 2-1, but I don’t think the weather will co-operate enough to get three results. However it finishes, though, it should be a cracker and I cannot wait for it to start.