Stuart Hess at the Oval

South African captain Graeme Smith said England face a different kind of pressure as they attempt to defend their no.1 ranking in the three match Test series starting at The Oval on Thursday.

Speaking, Wednesday, on the eve of the first Test, Smith, who will become the sixth South African to play 100 Tests, explained that the series will be the first significant challenge for Andrew Strauss’ men since they became Test cricket’s no.1 side by beating India last year.

“It’s probably their first major defence of the no.1 ranking, and being chased by a pack brings a different kind of pressure,” said Smith.

South Africa were the last team to beat England in a Test series at home, in 2008 on the back of Smith’s magnificent century in the third match at Edgbaston.

Smith his side were pleased with their build-up to the series which has been criticised in some quarters in England.

“There is a real feeling of contentment and clarity within our squad and we are at the point where we want to be now. The build-up has felt long and we are excited about the prospect of starting the series tomorrow.”

England captain Andrew Strauss believed the series would be competitive as all contests between the two countries have been since South Africa re-entered international sport in 1992.

“There’s a bit of extra spice to this series because it’s the best two teams in the world but every series I’ve played against SA has been keenly contested and this one won’t be any different,” said Strauss.

“It will be a good gauge for us, the rankings say we are no.1 and we have to go out there and prove that.”

South Africa will be without veteran wicket-keeper Mark Boucher, who was forced to retire from international cricket after his left-eye was cut by a bail in a freak accident during the first tour match last week.

Boucher’s place behind the stumps will be taken by AB de Villiers while it is widely expected that JP Duminy will slot into the no.7 spot in the batting order.

While there’ve been some concerns about Graeme Swann and wicketkeeper Matt Prior, England are expected to pick the same eleven which played the second Test of the series against the West Indies last month.

Both captains reiterated that the controversy surrounding Kevin Pietersen and his negotiations about a new contract with the England Cricket Board would have no effect on the series.

“The discussions about Kevin Pietersen in our team has been purely about tactics, how we will play against him, as it has about every other player in their line-up,” said Smith.

“It hasn’t been a distraction to us,” explained Strauss, “And that’s allowed us to prepare properly for the first game. Kevin as much as anyone wants to do well in this series and I haven’t seen any signs in the build-up that he is in anyway distracted by what’s going on.”

Teams – England (likely): Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Matthew Prior, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann, James Anderson

South Africa (likely): Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.