It’s the most eagerly awaited Test series in eons. Even though in the latest ICC rankings South Africa are third just behind Australia, there is little doubt that in the eyes of cricket fans everywhere England and South Africa are the two best Test playing nations right now and so a contest between the teams should be a sight for the gods. It’s a pity though that it is only a three-match series when five would have been more in order.
Still, a look at the personnel manning both the teams is enough to make the serious cricket follower drool. In every department of the game both England and South Africa are served by some of the leading players in the game today, a few of them all-time greats. And on the face of it, forecasting the result of the series would be a mug’s game.
It would be tempting to say that England have their noses ahead going by their ranking, the home advantage and their superb showing in the last few years. But then South Africa too have an excellent record at home and away and in fact won the last series played in England four years ago. And that’s not all. South Africa have an unbeaten record away from home over the last six years.
There is no denying the fact that England have much going for them and remain the team to beat. To start with they have an experienced captain in Andrew Strauss. Not many England leaders have two Ashes wins under their belt and this alone is enough to place Strauss among the best captains England has had in recent times.
He has now won seven successive home series which is a record for any England captain. During this period England have won 16 Tests and lost just two. Moreover the final Test at Lord’s will be Strauss’ 100th and there is little doubt that he would like to make it doubly special.
But Strauss is only one gem in an England batting line up that has several sparkling stones. His opening partner Alastair Cook averages almost 50 in a career spanning 80 Tests. With 19 hundreds and a highest score of 294 Cook has an insatiable appetite for runs and the two have formed one of the most durable and successful opening pairs in the history of the game.
At No 3 walks in Jonathan Trott and if Cook averages almost 50 here is a man who averages over 50. Steady rather than spectacular he builds an innings and with the age old qualities of dedication, determination and concentration he is a bowler’s nightmare.
If somehow the South African attack can get two of these three batsmen out early they still have to contend with the formidable figure of Kevin Pietersen walking in at No 4. He is the opposite of those preceding him at the crease for he is flamboyance personified.
With dazzling strokes – and other shots not out of the textbook – Pietersen is able to demoralize the bowlers like few batsmen in the game can today. Given his robust, attacking style he has been remarkably consistent as an average of virtually 50 and 20 hundreds in 86 Tests clearly indicate.
Next in the order is a batsman who averages 47 so whichever way one looks at it there is still no respite for the bowler. Ian Bell is a class act and the perfect middle order batsman for he is capable of playing the rescue act should there be an early collapse as also to build upon quickly on a sound start. The in-form Ravi Bopara has been given another chance to consolidate his position at No 6 and he is more than just a handy player.
And finally at No 7 we have Matt Prior and wicket keeper batsmen don’t come any tougher than this 30-year-old. Whether scoring consistently – he has six Test hundreds and averages 42 – or being quite spectacular behind the stumps, Prior is a major asset to the side.
If anything, the bowling matches the batting in quality and experience. England have perhaps the best seam and swing attack in the game and because James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are performing so well, bowlers like Steve Finn, Chris Tremlett and Graham Onions have to fight for a place.
And to complete the happy picture in addition to having the best seam and swing attack England also have the leading spin bowler in the game today. In an era of ordinary bowlers and doubtful actions, Graeme Swann is a joy to watch. The easy action, the loop, the flight, the turn, Swann has them all and his skill and subtlety is driven home by the figures – 188 wickets from 44 Tests at an average of 28.
So then England should be taken as favourites to win the series right? But wait. Let’s consider the opposition. If Strauss is an experienced leader he still has to take second billing to Graeme Smith in this aspect for the genial South African has been captaining his country since 2003.
At the age of 22 he led the squad to England and came back with a 2-2 verdict in the Test series. And if Strauss is a very good batsman, Smith is approaching greatness with a career average almost 50. Moreover the first Test at the Oval will be his 100th and he too will want to make it doubly special.
But Smith is only one among several outstanding batsmen in the squad. AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph form an awesome array of batsmen which even the skilled and experienced England attack might find it hard to dismiss. And if anything their pace bowling would seem to match the England line-up.
If England have the world’s best spin bowler in Swann, South Africa have the world’s best pace bowler in Dale Steyn. The figures against his name are of the mind boggling variety – 272 wickets from just 54 Tests at an average of 23. And in support he has Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Vernon Philander who has made a sensational start to his career running up a tally of 51 wickets from just seven Tests at an unbelievable average of 14.
South Africa’s one weakness would appear to be spin bowling though they will be hoping that Imran Tahir could pull off something against opponents who are traditionally weak against leg spin bowling. Also how they will get over the absence of the incomparable Mark Boucher who had to withdraw from the touring squad in the wake of the freak injury to his eye remains to be seen.