AFTER a disappointing tour of the UAE, a resurgent England travel to South Africa looking to take advantage of a demoralised, underperforming and rebuilding number one test team in the world. Despite losing their most recent series 2-0 to Pakistan, Cook’s side are surely to perform better in conditions far more familiar to England and can take advantage of a South Africa side that is uncharacteristically struggling for consistency in the test arena.
England go in to the first test in Durban on boxing day after rounding off a comprehensive win over South Africa ‘A’ in their final warm up match on Tuesday. The Lions bowled SA ‘A’ out in their first innings for a measly 136 as the only real resistance came from opening batsman Stephen Cook, carrying his bat for a respectable 53*. England coach Trevor Bayliss would have been pleased to see the bulk of the wickets going to the returning Stephen Finn (4-36) and Ben Stokes (3-25), both recently returning from injuries.
After inconsistency plagued England’s batting line-up against Pakistan, Bayliss and his coaching staff have made a couple of important changes to the top order. Veteran batsman Ian Bell has been dropped and replaced by South African born Nick Compton, who last played over two years ago, to bat at number 3. All-rounder Moeen Ali has also been dropped back down the batting order after he partnered Captain Alistair Cook in opening the batting in the UAE with Nottinghamshire batsman Alex Hales to take the vacant spot. This shuffle in the top order appears to be working as England dominated the SA ‘A’ bowling attack in their reply. Centuries from Cook (126) and Joe Root (116) were supported well by half centuries from Hales (56) and Stokes (66) as England racked up a massive 414-6.
SA ‘A’ looked to be putting up more of a fight the second time around before Ali once again proved why the England selectors continue to pick him as the countries number one spinner as he took 6-77 to finish the match in style. England eventually winning by a comfortable innings and 91 runs, the perfect way to end preparations for the four tests.
With the batting line-up finally clicking for England and news that Jimmy Anderson will be fit, the only decision Bayliss will need to make on Boxing Day is to either play the inform Finn or give a debut test to the left arm seamer Mark Footitt. Footitt has been a regular top performer in the LV= County Championship recently, taking no less than 158 wickets in the last two seasons for Derbyshire, and fully deserves his call up to the national squad for the first time. Despite Finn’s proven credentials with the red ball, he has struggled to cement his place in the starting XI and Footitt would add a new dimension to the currently all right-handed England seam attack.
South Africa, on the other hand, are still ranked as number one test nation in the world but face many conundrums themselves before Saturday. The Proteas lost their first away series in 9 years when they lost 3-0 to India last month, which has raised many questions in their own batting order for the first time in years. Despite only AB de Villiers managing to make a substantial amount of runs in the series, there is added pressure on de Villiers this time around as Coach Russell Domingo has given him the keeping duties once again. This comes after both the youth of Quinton de Kock and the experience of Dane Vilas failed to impress and leaves South Africa once again searching for a long-term replacement in the keeping department, a problem since Mark Boucher’s retirement over 3 years ago.
Temba Bavuma, who impressed when opening the batting for the first time in the final test against India, is expected to partner Dean Elgar once again at the top of the order. This inexperience will add more pressure on top order duo of Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis coming in at three and four. Both failed to make an impact during the tour of India and South Africa will need to them to regain their form if they are to come out on top in the series. Meanwhile, in the bowling department, South Africa will be pleased to welcome back their premier fast bowler Dale Steyn from injury and have the strength in depth to be able to fill the gap left by the injured Vernon Philander without much concern.
With both sides having some of the best test players in the world at their disposal, this test series is bound to be a close affair. Each team is looking to bounce back after recent defeats and both are still struggling to fill the voids left by major retirements in the recent past respectively. Add to the mix that past test series between these two top nations are notoriously tight, there is no doubt that this series is going to be one to watch and definitely hard to predict.
Featured image: Independent