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The first Test between South Africa and England at the Oval in London – despite the very real threat of rain delays – looms as a decisive clash in the battle for Test supremacy.
Weather forecasts have 60% showers for the opening day on Thursday and slightly less for the following two days, which all means that whichever side hopes to be crowned the undisputed No 1 side in Test cricket when the curtain comes down on the final encounter at Lord’s on August 20, will have to hit the ground running. And hard.
“I can promise you that all the boys just want that first Test to start now,” Jacques Rudolph, who scored a half-century in the South African innings in the three-day warm-up match against Kent, said.
There have been dark mutterings in the English press about South Africa’s lack of proper cricket preparation for such a high-stakes series, but Rudolph and captain Graeme Smith have been quick to dismiss these as irrelevant.
South Africa had a two-day run out against Somerset at Taunton but the trauma surrounding Mark Boucher’s potentially career-ending eye injury meant cricket was of secondary import.
Thereafter followed the clash against Kent, in which Rudolph and most of the South African top order batsmen got some runs under the belt. Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and Rudolph all scored half-centuries against Kent while JP Duminy spent time at the crease against Somerset.
“We’re well aware we haven’t played a lot of cricket before this series and we’ve accepted that. England have played a lot of cricket, we haven’t but we’re not going to be worried about how much cricket we’ve played,” Rudolph said.
“From a batting point of view, everybody got starts and got in.”
But while the respective batting line-ups can certainly save a Test match and put one’s side in a position of dominance, it is going to be the two sets of bowlers who will be the ultimate match-winners.
And in a short three-Test series with rain a significant factor in what has been a damp British summer, the Proteas will look to their bowlers to hit their straps from the minute they set out their bowling markers.
The series features the two finest fast bowling attacks in world cricket and it will be the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel who will have to set the tone for the Proteas’ fortunes from the off.
Back in 2008 South Africa started the four-match Test series off at Lord’s and a below-par bowling performance saw the home side rack up 593/8 declared to leave the Proteas on the back foot in the first Test.
The second Test at Leeds saw England bundled out for 203 in the first innings as South Africa strolled to a comfortable ten-wicket win to set up an epic 2-1 series victory.
There are no such luxuries this time around, and if South Africa hope to repeat the 2008 dose, they will have to come out all guns blazing.
And while Steyn and particularly Philander can be counted upon to be on the money from the word go, it is the often erratic – but potentially game-changing – Morkel who will need to be at his sharpest to ensure South Africa start off on the right foot.