The England-South Africa Test series promises to be a riveting contest. South Africa haven’t lost a Test series in England since 1998, but this England team is a very different kettle of fish. It would be South Africa’s toughest challenge in England in recent times. Nishad Pai Vaidya previews England before the mouth-watering clash against South Africa.
In the summer of 2011, an inspired England bullied India and snatched the numero uno spot with a crushing 4-0 series victory. A year down the line, the same team faces it’s most formidable challenge on home soil as the touring South Africans endeavour to steal the coveted No 1 rankings. While the drubbing in the Middle East at the hands of Pakistan exposed England’s limitations against spin, they continue to remain a juggernaut at home. Andrew Strauss would want his men to rise to the occasion and overhaul the Proteas challenge to assert their hold over the top spot.
The last time South Africa toured England, they won the Test series 2-1 under the inspired leadership of Graeme Smith, who led from the front. Four years down the line, England is a much stronger unit as the Andrew Strauss-Andy Flower partnership turned things around since they took over the mantle. England now have a set of prolific batsmen, a world-class spinner and fast bowlers with the potential to rattle the best in business. It is in stark contrast to the side of 2008 – one that lost Michael Vaughan mid-way and experimented a thing or two with its bowling.
Strauss and Alastair Cook are probably the best pair of openers in Test cricket today. It has been a successful association for a number of years and has particularly blossomed after Cook transformed into a prolific run-machine. Strauss went through an indifferent phase, but the performance against the West Indies would do his confidence a world of good. The good thing about him is that he doesn’t let his captaincy affect his batting and vice-versa.
Even if Strauss doesn’t perform too well, his leadership wouldn’t bear the brunt and England can expect him to be balanced in his approach.
Jonathan Trott’s presence at No 3 forms a stable link between the openers and the middle order. Although, he isn’t the prettiest batsman to watch, his appetite for big scores is remarkable. Considering his South African background, expect him to get a number of words of advice from the Proteas. It isn’t just Kevin Pietersen who would be at the receiving end as Trott too would have to face a few verbal volleys. Through all that, Trott will continue to maintain his calm and frustrate the opposition with his gritty batting. If he stays long, England are sure to pile a huge total.
Coming to England cricket’s biggest enigma, Pietersen, whose recent limited-overs retirement has only spiced up things. In this England line-up, he is one player who is a genuine match-winner and can turn the game on its head almost single-handedly. He has had numerous memorable encounters with the South Africans and the trend promises to continue. On the sidelines of the England-Australia One-Day International (ODI) series, Pietersen struck form at the county circuit with a mammoth 234 not out for Surrey. His tremendous form augurs well and playing the South Africans always motivates him to raise the bar.
The flamboyance of Pietersen is well complemented by the cool headed approach of Ian Bell. The Warwickshire batsman has filled the void left by Pietersen in the one-day setup tremendously well and is also in great form going into the series. During South Africa’s last visit, Bell agonisingly missed out on a double at Lord’s when he was dismissed on 199.
The only unsettled spot in the England line-up is No 6. Eoin Morgan’s failure in the United Arab Emirates led to his axing and the young Jonathan Bairstow took his spot during the series against the West Indies. The short ball troubled the youngster and there was no way the England selectors would have exposed him to the might of Dale Steyn and Co. As a result Ravi Bopara comes in with another lifeline to resurrect his Test career – which has been a stop start affair. Matt Prior at No 7 caps the batting order to go with his neat glovework.
Graeme Swann had a good series in South Africa when England toured in 2009-10 as he made vital contributions with both bat and ball. His spin would be crucial to England’s chances as he has to support the fast-bowling department well. In case of a collapse, his batting would add a lot of value as he has the ability to grit it out in the middle.
The most exciting prospect of this series is the fast bowling on both sides. Both teams have enviable pace bowling resources and it is going to be the battle of the best fast bowling packs in the world. Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and James Anderson would be England’s three seamers with Stephen Finn and Graham Onions forming the reserves.
In a 13-man squad, England have interestingly named five fast bowlers and no reserve batsmen. It indicates that they may consider playing a four-pronged pace attack. In that case, Steve Finn should come in considering his phenomenal progress over the last year. If that materialises, Bopara may have to wait for his chances as the other batsmen are irreplaceable. It has been a wet summer in England and if the overcast conditions persist, England’s bowlers would move he ballot trouble the batsmen.
The whole foundation of this potentially riveting contest was set when India lost the series last year and continued to slip Down Under. The tourists haven’t lost a series in England since 1998 and would back themselves to beat England. Without doubt, it would be their toughest tour to England in recent times and the hosts too cannot expect a walk in the park. Cricket fans from around the world would be licking their lips.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)