The series I have been anxiously awaiting all year is about to commence this Thursday, and it involves two of the world’s best sides in the longest format. England’s last test series resulted in a crushing loss against India, whereas South Africa beat New Zealand on their own turf to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. England will be without Chris Woakes for the first test and potentially the second, and whilst this is a huge blow as Woakes is arguably England’s most valuable player, it does give the opportunity to trial some up and coming fast bowlers who could be seen as future replacements for the likes of Broad and Anderson. It will therefore be intriguing to see how Toby Roland-Jones and Mark Wood do in the first Test at Lords.
South Africa are currently a difficult side to gauge. They have not been able to find a successful opening partner to accompany Dean Elgar at the top of the order, with the likes of Stephen Cook, Stiaan van Zyl, and Theunis de Bruyn not making great accounts for themselves in the opportunities they had. Heino Kuhn is set to be the latest opener to join Elgar, and he is coming off the back of imperious form for the South Africa A team, with a double century and a couple of fifties to his name recently. In the middle order, they will yet again be lacking AB de Villiers, whose retirement from Tests appears imminent, and they have yet to find a star quality batsman to fill his role in middle order-(which is admittedly very difficult), but it appears as if de Villiers will no longer be around, which forces South Africa to trial new batsman. They could make the move of pushing Quinton de Kock up the order, as he is currently the best young batsman in the world, and would thrive being up the order. However, he is also probably the best gloveman in the world as well, and with the amount of comparisons that have been made between him and Adam Gilchrist, it seems only right that he stays at 7 and keeps on with the wicket keeping duties. They also have the problem of Temba Bavuma who seems completely devoid of runs, but somehow keeps making his way back into the squad. Do they stick with Bavuma and bank on him coming good, or do they go for a different option and play someone such as de Bruyn or Markram in the middle order? The Proteas bowling outfit looks menacing as always, even without the injured Dale Steyn. Kagiso Rabada is the most exciting prospect in cricket right now, and will lead the attack aged only 22. Last time he played against England in a Test Match, it was disastrous for England, as Rabada tore through their albeit much different top order, on similar pitches to what he will play on here. Vernon Philander is the experienced campaigner who has a vast amount of County experience and will be deadly with the new ball. They will be expected to play Morne Morkel, and his bounce that he generates will undoubtedly cause England’s batsmen many issues, as he has done in the past. Their spinning option is a lot stronger than England’s as Keshav Maharaj is an actual spinner. He cut through New Zealand’s batting line up in March, which although isn’t really saying much, was still very impressive on notoriously seamer friendly wickets. All in all, South Africa look a very strong outfit, but there are definite weaknesses in their batting which can be exposed.
England come into this series off the back of a catastrophic defeat in the semi final of the Champions Trophy against the lowest ranked team in that competition. But, a new format brings new hope, and the players that were involved in that competition that are now in the Test squad, will be looking to bounce back immediately. At the top of the order, Alastair Cook has been in sublime form for Essex, scoring hundred after hundred, and this could be alarming for South Africa, as Cook is now a man free from the responsibility of captaincy, and could start repeating his form from 2010-2011. The worrying drop in form from Haseeb Hameed has forced England selectors to leave him out of the Test squad, and go with Keaton Jennings as the new opener, who edges out Mark Stoneman, Nick Gubbins and Hameed to become Cook’s partner. The burden of expectation will no doubt fall upon the new England captain Joe Root who will want to start off his new era with a hatful of runs. Root will need to shake off the problem of not being able to convert 50’s into 100’s if he is to emulate the other players of the so called “Big Four”, Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, who are all captains of their respective nations. Root has 11 hundreds and 27 fifties in his Test career so far, which wen compared to Steve Smith who has 20 hundreds and 20 fifties, pales in comparison. His Yorkshire teammate Gary Ballance will have all the eyes on him as he makes yet another return to the squad. His inclusion was inevitable, over 900 runs in Division 1 this year at an average of over 100- only the unstoppable Kumar Sangakkara boasts better stats. Ballance will likely bat at number 3, which in my opinion is the right call, but has lead to many to say that he will be exposed again by the fast bowlers, and that he is better off down the order. England don’t really have any problems with their middle order, as Jonny Bairstow is England’s best batsman at the minute, and Ben Stokes is the best out and out cricketer currently playing. Moeen Ali is a player that cannot really be relied upon, as he is as inconsistent as they come- only with the bat, as his bowling is always consistently abysmal, and then their is a long tail that could be exposed. Hopefully England will not include two spinners in their team and play Liam Dawson, who could be considered as one of the most fraudulent cricketers going around at the moment. Dawson is another bits and pieces player like Moeen, who doesn’t really excel at batting or bowling, rather is just mediocre in both departments. I personally would have loved to see England include a proper spinner, someone like Jack Leach from Somerset, or the young leggie Mason Crane from Hampshire, who impressed on his T20 international debut last month, claiming AB de Villiers as his first ever international wicket. However, it seems the selectors are hellbent on including players such as Dawson, who let’s hope for England’s sake doesn’t get awarded his second Test cap on Thursday. As far as their real bowlers go, England look very dangerous, with Jimmy Anderson back to full fitness, and Stuart Broad coming in off the back of impressive performances for Nottinghamshire. It is likely that England will go with both Roland Jones and Mark Wood for this Test, which leaves England with the frankly unnecessary option of having 5 seamers in their side- Anderson, Broad, Wood, Roland-Jones and Stokes. Roland-Jones will be making his Test debut at his home ground, and many people, including myself, will say that it’s long overdue. Mark Wood is England’s quickest bowler, and gives them that variety that they need of the extra pace. He took a 5fer in Durham’s most recent match, and England will be hoping that he will trouble the shaky South Africa top order.
Overall, it promises to be a tremendous series, with both teams matching each other in terms of skill and ambition. Thursday cannot come soon enough!