This is a contest which has been hyped tremendously since the last 12 months, even if around that time India was the World’s No.1 Test side and touring England. India got whitewashed and that increased the hype even more, since England incidentally replaced India as the numero uno team. And over time, South Africa has been the closest contender to upstage England for the coveted position in the ICC rankings.
As of 27th April 2012, both the sides are neck to neck with 116 points and a series win for either of the teams will decide which team will be on top of the world in Test cricket. So this will be the battle for the World No.1, making it a heavyweight clash just as in the old days of boxing between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazer or between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent years in tennis. England do have the home advantage, but South Africa play these days in similar conditions at home so this tightens the contest even more. Here are England’s likely 11 to turn up on the field for the 3 Test battle beginning on 19th July at the Oval –
1) Andrew Strauss
The England captain will lead his country on the field once again, provided he does not suffer from any injury. He needs to set an example for the others with his batting and not just on the field, and that is likely to be the most important factor which will differentiate these two terrific Test match sides. Strauss has not been in the best of touch since the last 18 months, and only recently hit two centuries in two Tests at home. But it came against a rookie West Indies attack and thus it remains to be seen if he can continue his form against an attack comprising of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
On the previous two tours of South Africa, England’s captain changed midway. In 2003, Nasser Hussain stepped down after the second Test and Michael Vaughan took over. Whereas in 2008, Vaughan stepped down after the third Test after England lost the series and Kevin Pietersen took over for the final Test.
This time probably the trend would not be followed as under Strauss, England have reached the summit of the rankings and only lost an away series to Pakistan in the UAE. But Alastair Cook seems ready for captaining England in Tests apart from ODIs and with age not on Strauss’s side, England’s selectors might want a change in captaincy again in case the team fails miserably this series. So Strauss will have to be the standout performer for the side if he needs to stay on as captain atleast.
2) Alastair Cook
Cook has been an able opening partner for Strauss since the last six years. In this way, England has had the advantage of a stable opening partnership at the top, which has helped overcome the weaknesses of an unpredictable middle order. He has been one of the reasons why England are No.1 at the moment, following his exploits in the Ashes series in Australia in late 2010 which saw the team win for the first time in 24 years there and retain the coveted urn.
Surprisingly though, he has not been that big a force at home. Against Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2010, he was woefully out of form and could have been dropped from the team altogether. While last season, he was not at his best against Sri Lanka and India as well to a huge extent, besides the 293 he hit at Trent Bridge. But Cook can play the supporting role well to Strauss and even his meager starts are critical for England to post a big score, since it makes life easier for the others to come such as Trott, Pietersen and Bell.
He may struggle against a powerful South African bowling attack, so this will be his true test of whether he can indeed be considered as one of the best batsmen in the world in Test match cricket.
3) Jonathan Trott
One of those English players who is actually a South African, this will be the first time Jonathan Trott will be playing against his nation in a Test series in England. When England toured South Africa in the winter of 2009, Trott did not make that big an impact and that reflected in the result, which was a 1-1 draw. So he would be likely to level things and his style of batting would be the key for England to post a huge score.
Since Philander and Morkel tend to rely on swing more rather than pace, Trott is the man who has to take the responsibility to keep them quiet. South Africa’s attack perhaps is the only one in the world at the moment which can perform the best in English conditions and thus the team has the best chance to win in England again, like in 2008. Trott has had a fabulous first three years of his career, but this is not going to be cakewalk for him even as his home record is impressive.
South Africa would be gunning for Trott’s wicket since he is like their Rahul Dravid, the Mr. Dependable of the side. Once he is dismissed, it is much simpler for them to rip apart the batting line up.
4) Kevin Pietersen
His recent retirement from ODIs and T20s was shocking news, but this came at the right time for Pietersen. The most popular English player from South Africa, he will get another chance to slaughter his country with his aggressive style of batting. And he would be in a better frame of mind to do it, since his focus now would completely be on playing Test cricket and no other format of the game. South Africa is one opposition which always gets the best out of Pietersen, and for this no look further than his three ODI centuries in early 2005 in South Africa!
Pietersen continues to be England’s top batsman in Test match cricket, even with the presence of Jonathan Trott and Andrew Strauss. It is KP who can not only destroy the South African attack, but demoralize them completely once he gets going. Such is his style of batting that he gives the opposition chances of getting him out early, but he can easily dominate any bowler and Dale Steyn knows that very well!
Steyn and Pietersen played with each other for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the first three years of the IPL, which has intensified their rivalry on the field since both of them know each other’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well. The winner of this mini battle will definitely determine the winner of this Test series and Pietersen would want to go one up again on the South African spearhead. Besides, he can also take lessons on playing Morne Morkel, who is now his Delhi Daredevils teammate!
5) Ian Bell
Bell used to be his country’s one down batsman at a point of time but his form dipped and coincidentally Jonathan Trott emerged on the scene. Now he bats at No.5 and has been a revelation for the side. Bell’s improvement has been so staggering that it has helped England continue their dominance at home and level a Test series in South Africa and win series in Bangladesh and Australia.
He has not however been that impressive ever since the home series against India last year, where he was a prolific run getter and helped his team secure a whitewash. His struggles began in the UAE against Pakistan and continued in Sri Lanka against the home team. That probably reflected in their unfavourable results in the last six months.
But he is finally back on home soil and with South Africa not having a spin friendly bowling attack, Bell is in all probability would be more comfortable playing even the most menacing of pace attacks. Thus, this makes Steyn, Morkel and Philander’s job of getting England’s batting lineup out for a nothing score much more difficult. Bell completes a terrific top order because their batting has supported their much stronger bowling attack and this is the reason why they became No.1 last year and have still retained their position.
6) Ravi Bopara/Jonny Bairstow
Bopara has always been in the English selectors’ radar for the shorter formats of the game, but not so much for Test cricket. Hence, he has tremendously worked hard on his game to ensure that he cements his place in the team in all three formats of the game. Plus, his chances have increased with the retirement of Paul Collingwood in January 2011 and the volatility of the No.6 spot ever since. Eoin Morgan has also been woefully out of form, so that has entitled him to a place in the Test squad if not the playing XI. His major challenge now is the dashing wicketkeeper batsman from Yorkshire, Jonny Bairstow who is also competing for this spot in the batting order.
Jonny Bairstow made his Test debut recently at the home of cricket, Lords against the West Indies. But with the presence of Matt Prior in the side, he has to only play as a pure batsman having to field in the outfield. Yet, he has done a fair job so far and hence is likely to get the nod ahead of Bopara for the South Africa series although Bopara has a better temperament for Test cricket and can bowl medium pace effectively as well.
But Bairstow’s rise has been amazing in the shorter formats of the game and with his attacking style of batting, he could be troublesome for South Africa’s bowlers.
7) Matt Prior
Prior has England’s preferred choice of wicketkeeper batsman since the last four years. Despite crossing the age of 35, he continues to be fit for the longest format of the game and has the experience to play in it for as long as possible now that he is no longer playing ODI or T20 cricket, a la Kevin Pietersen! His performances are hardly noticed because he bats at No.7, which means that he does not get many opportunities to get big scores. But all his contributions matter, and will matter even more against South Africa.
His batting abilities cannot be questioned even at the Test level and sometimes he has saved England’s fate when the top order has failed miserably. England’s chance of posting a big total on the board in the first innings especially increase when he is batting, because he can accelerate when asked to and bat with the lower order extremely well, which comprises of Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan and James Anderson.
Whereas in terms of wicket keeping, Prior can be considered the most efficient behind the stumps in the country. Despite age not being on his side, he remains as fit as a fiddle which is crucial for any wicketkeeper at the Test level. His role behind the stumps will again be crucial as England’s obvious plan will be the fast bowlers swinging the ball and the South African batsmen nicking it straight behind to the keeper. He is a vital cog in England’s arsenal indeed.
8) Stuart Broad
Once he is in full fitness, Broad is hard to stop by especially in English conditions. That is his major impediment towards gaining success in all formats of the game. Alongside Anderson, he forms one of the best new ball pairs in the world in Test cricket, but with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in contention as well. His nagging line and length as well as pace could trouble the South African batting line up and pace is what separates him from the rest of the bowlers.
Whereas he is also a valuable batsman for the side. He is no mut with the bat and has scored a couple of centuries in the past, his famous one being the marathon 176 against Pakistan in the now tainted Test match at Lords in 2010. Broad is touted to be the future No.6 or No.7 for England, if they do not find a suitable candidate for these positions in the near future. His playing style reminds many of Andrew Flintoff and Broad would very much overtake him if he is open to improving more and keeping physically fit. Another Broad injury is the last thing England need, and although they have potential replacements for him, losing Broad could demoralize the team and give South Africa an advantage.
9) Tim Bresnan
Bresnan has been a revelation for England since his debut in Test cricket. He has improved leaps and bounds to become England’s third fast bowler in the side, usually bowling first change to Anderson and Broad. Bresnan can hit the dick the hard, which makes pace and bounce his greatest strength. But he has a wonderful seam position and this renders him unpredictable to any opposition batsman.
The Yorkshire pacer can also be a wonderful batsman for his team if required and this gives England a dearth of all-rounders to keep in the team. This is a healthy sign for them to remain No.1. Bresnan is never noticed as much as Anderson and Broad and that might help him become England’s unsung hero once again as he could from the back door trouble South Africa along with his fast bowling mates. And in case the new ball bowlers do not perform well, the onus will be on him to give it his everything and pick up wickets as England actually have only four genuine bowlers in the side.
He too like Broad, has suffered from many injuries in the past and it remains to be seen how fit he is to perform for a high intensity 3 match series against South Africa. Fortunately, England have other options just in case he may not make it to the starting XI but due to his batting, the team would want him in the side than any other fast bowler, let it be Steven Finn or Graham Onions.
10) Graeme Swann
Swann is definitely England’s best choice of the place for the lone spinner of the side and he has been amazing consistent at the Test match level for his country, despite being above the age of 30. He definitely deserves to be called England’s Most Valuable Player, as his spells have won matches for England in South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and of course at home.
He could be the ultimate difference between both the teams since South Africans are usually not the best players of spin in the world and Strauss would thus want to use him as much as possible. Besides, he is anyway a bowler who wants to pick up wickets all the time rather than containing runs so any captain would love to have him in his team.
Besides, Swann can also be a crucial contributor with the bat. England may not have a dangerous looking batting line up, but it is indeed one of the deepest in the world since 10 out of the 11 players can bat very well and that could make South Africa’s dream of winning a second consecutive Test series in England a daunting task. But Swann will have to do his homework to tackle someone like Steyn, who will want to wrap up the tail on his own to give South Africa the edge in the match.
11) James Anderson
Anderson is England’s bowling spearhead till date and easily one of the best bowlers in Test cricket in the world at the moment. Without him, England’s attack somewhat looks spineless despite the fact that they have other options. He is easily the leader of the bowling pack and is a guide for the others who may be faltering. Thus, his presence has immense value for the side and Anderson is much more than just his skill.
His form will be the key in England winning this series, alongside his experience ofcourse. He has been a bit irritated off late because of the treatment the England and Wales Cricket Board have been giving him in terms of not keeping him in their plans for the future in ODIs and T20s, and the fact that they rested him for the ongoing third Test against West Indies when he is 100% fit to play. Whatever the intentions of the board maybe, Anderson needs to be kept happy and motivated so that he can give it his best because he is the soul of this English Test team, being one of the prime reasons why England are No.1 till date.
Anderson has a history of troubling South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith tremendously, especially in England. With this being Smith’s third tour of England and that too as skipper, he will be cautious of him and his wicket is always crucial for the home team to get. A dip of form for Anderson will not do England any good, no matter how much do they boast of playing as a team. Strauss and co. would want him to be at his very best in this heavyweight clash which will help them remain No.1 for a longer period of time.