England captain Alastair Cook bats during day two of the 3rd Test between Pakistan and England at Sharjah Cricket Stadium on November 2, 2015 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates © Getty Images
England captain Alastair Cook bats during day two of the 3rd Test between Pakistan and England at Sharjah Cricket Stadium on November 2, 2015 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates © Getty Images

South Africa lock horns with England in the upcoming four-match Test series with the first one commencing on Boxing Day at Durban. With both the sides being equally polished one can expect the Test series to be competitive as conditions these days tend to produce result-oriented games. England silenced their harshest critics when they conquered the Ashes and gave a testament of their supremacy in the five-day format. But both teams have suffered tragic defeats in their previous encounters in the subcontinent. South Africa’s vulnerability at home can give England an edge in the series opines Suraj Choudhari.  LIVE CRICKET SCORECARD: South Africa vs England 2015-16, 1st Test at Durban, Day 1

England have been a consistent performer in Tests, and they successfully displayed it in the Ashes. Prior to the tournament one could have crystal-gazed and saw Australia winning the series but it wasn’t to be. Later, in the Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, they were on the brink of an implausible victory in the first Test but bad light deprived them from achieving fruitful dividends. They somehow didn’t manage to keep the momentum going and lost the next two games. But the team displayed temperament of a monk and were resistive in their approach on turning UAE wickets. READ: South Africa beat England in a thriller to achieve their maiden Test win

Coming back to the present tour, England have put up a remarkable show in winning their first of the two warm-up matches in Potchefstroom and could have also won the Pietermaritzburg game if only the weather didn’t play spoilsport. At present, England are boosting with confidence. Now, how do these wins help? England are coming into the series following a 2-0 series loss against Pakistan and without the services of veteran Ian Bell. The team is generally low on confidence when they tour a foreign land but practice matches are what give them an insight of the conditions and a platform to gain momentum. After these wins, they can now back themselves and have the liberty to play with freedom in such high pressure games.

England’s legendary all-rounder Ian Botham feels that England will script history and conquer the Test series against Proteas. He was quoted in Sportinglife.com saying, “It’s a series England can win and I think they will win.” South Africa are coming off the back of a 3-0 hammering in India, they have some injury concerns and are vulnerable. READ: South Africa vs England 2015-16: Old Trafford 1998 and other memorable Tests between the two rivals

One should remember, South Africa have a huge mental barrier to overcome in the series as the damage inflicted by India was enormous. They have to rise from the dead and put up a brave performance on the bowling-friendly South African wickets.

On the contrary, the numbers and stats do give an idea that the battle between these two giants has been really close and each time the winner has claimed the series was by a whisker. In nine Test series’ since 1994 between these two so far, a team has won the series by a margin of more than one Test on just a single occasion. South Africa won the Test series against England in 2012 by 2-0 making it a solitary occasion and hence corroborates the above number.

Another interesting number comes up when we have a look at the anomaly. In 39 Tests since 1994, England have won just 10 games whereas games whereas South Africa have emerged victorious on 13 occasions. But what fascinates the most is England have won four Tests out of 19 in South Africa with latter having just five wins to their name. This clearly indicates that the games in South Africa have been that of a cat and a mouse and South Africa haven’t been efficient enough to exploit the home advantage.

At home South Africa have also lost 14 Tests out of 47 with 27 wins since January 2006, in comparison to their previous record of 33 wins and 8 losses during the span of 1996-2005 at home. These numbers suggest that they are not lions of their own dens.

For England, their skipper Alastair Cook has been in good touch but his co-star at the other end has been missing since Andrew Strauss’ retirement. England opening pair woes continues and to counter-attack this they have recalled Nick Compton into the side along with Alex Hales. England found them in a conundrum as both the batsmen were equally effective in the Tour matches. Joe Root looks solid in the line-up and is their consistent performer, while James Taylor will further provide more stability.

Ben Stokes will surely be the man to watch out for as the bouncy South African wickets seems to suit his style of play. He’s been prolific in the tour matches and has made massive contributions with both bat and ball. The likes of Jonny Bairstow in the middle-order can provide impetus to the score and prove as a catalyst. Moeen Ali on the other hand is a utility cricketer who is well capable of playing a good innings and bail his team out with his maverick approach.

Ali also opened the batting for England along with Cook in the Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, but failed to convert those starts into big scores, and currently looks more comfortable in the lower middle order against the old ball. He will definitely lead the spin attack for his side and has done a remarkable job in the recent times.

The onus of leading the English pace attack comes on to the responsible shoulders of Stuart Broad after James Anderson was ruled out of the first Test due to a calf injury. Broad is well capable of doing it as he famously did in the Nottingham Test in the Ashes 2015. Steven Finn has been in good form and bowled beautifully in the first Tour match at Pietermaritzburg. Mark Footitt and Chris Woakes both might get a nod in the opening Test at Durban. They have enough ammunition in their pace artillery to chip 20 South African wickets.

One can expect the series to be a cliff-hanger but England have an advantage as South Africa in the recent times have not been dominant at home.

(Suraj Choudhari is a reporter with Criclife and CricketCountry. He is an avid follower of the game, and plays the sport at club level. He has a radical understanding about the subtle nuances and intricacies of cricket, and tries to express it through paper and pen.)