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London – The sun shone at The Oval yesterday – that in itself is quite an event over here, for there’s been very little seen of the sun in these parts for weeks.
There was more cloud than sun though – in fact by late afternoon it was decidedly murky – and there are still concerns that the first Test, starting tomorrow, will be hindered by rain. The Oval Test will be played in a proverbial bubble, a non-Olympic sporting topic in a city now awash with all things related to the five rings.
High-profile professional sportsmen of the modern age are, however, perfectly capable of shutting themselves off from the rest of the world and that is what the South African and England cricket sides must do. But for a quip about needing to find a new golf partner because of the absence of best mate Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis was all business yesterday.
Yes, South Africa had prepared well, no they didn’t need any more training and in fact they’d rather the Test had started a few days ago. “(The build-up) has dragged on a bit,” Kallis said. With so much at stake the anticipation is perfectly understandable.
The South Africans had a lengthy training session at the Kennington venue yesterday morning, an opportunity to get accustomed to a ground at which no South African team has won a Test dating back to 1907 when the sides first locked horns there. It’s a record neither Allan Donald, who played in the 1994 “Devon Malcolm game” nor Kallis, who was part of the 2003 and 2008 sides which lost there, can explain.
The closest anyone has come to giving a decent explanation has been Graeme Smith, who claimed tiredness at the end of lengthy tours in 2003 and 2008 meant South Africa couldn’t match England’s intensity.
No-one expects that to be the case now. Both sides arrived here raring to go, typically these days talking up the opposition, but also exuding self-belief. In the case of England’s spearhead James Anderson, he pointed to the toughness of the South African team, while indicating that he and his teammates had the armoury to break them down.
“This is going to be our toughest challenge for a while,” said Anderson, “but we have got the confidence going into it. We have the necessary weapons to beat them.”
“We’ll need to be more patient, because they are renowned for being resilient and soaking up pressure better than most other countries.”
At the start of a series, neither team wants to give the other any extra motivation, hence the courteous manner in which they’ve talked about each other recently. Even the situation involving Kevin Pietersen – who is apparently locked in tense negotiations with the England Cricket Board about his national contract – was carefully deflected away by both Anderson and Kallis, the Englishman saying he trusted that the ECB was handling the situation properly while Kallis said it was all part of life in the professional age.
They both agreed that the extra publicity could play into Pietersen’s hands and possibly inspire him. In 2003 he fell one run short of a double hundred at Lord’s and then praised the crowd for making him feel loved. What kind of a reception he gets when he first comes out to bat at The Oval, is something many are looking forward to seeing.
However, there are so many intriguing battles across this series: Smith v Strauss, Smith v Anderson, Pietersen v Steyn and Kallis v Broad to name a few.
Kallis, whose personal record in England is not good, understands that his role, especially now in the absence of Boucher will be critical. “You don’t get a head start if you’ve done well in a previous innings or tours, you start with nought behind your name. It’s not like Formula One where you get pole position. That’s how I’ve approached my career and I will carry on doing so. It would be nice if I could have a good tour here, but more importantly if I have a bad tour and we win I’ll take that hands down.”
Strengths – Home ground
They haven’t lost a Test series here since 2008. Since then they’ve beaten India, Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka and this year the West Indies. Unlike South Africa, who have won just one home series in the last four seasons, England understand their own conditions extremely well and their bowlers exploit them expertly. Also, their lower-order batting, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann is strong and capable of adding big runs and doing so quickly
Weaknesses – No6 in the batting order
Given the consistency and strength of the top order coupled with the attacking thrust from the lower order, this spot in the middle order has never provided a major problem. Still the English can’t seem to settle on a proper No6 – they’ve tried Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow there recently and for the first Test Ravi Bopara has been recalled. For SA to make it count, they have to get through the top order quickly, but it is one area in a powerful batting line-up which they can exploit.
Key Player: Alastair Cook
Yes, a lot has been made of the respective bowling attacks and England’s is a good one, but teams still have to put runs on the board and Cook has been one of the form players on the world stage in the last 18 months. He is rigidly disciplined, knows where his scoring areas are, and sticks to playing in those regions. He averages 44 in eight Tests against South Africa and his century at Kingsmead in the 2009/10 series was instrumental in England’s triumph in that match.
Strengths – Bowling
England’s is a good attack but whereas in sub-continent conditions they’ve been more inclined towards containment, South Africa is built on attacking and they have done so expertly in all conditions. Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and, lately, Vernon Philander have been ruthless, providing magnificent variety and an ability to consistently take wickets. Throw in Jacques Kallis, who drifts between a containing role and, when the mood takes him, a nasty intimidating one and it makes for a well-rounded and experienced attack. Then there’s Imran Tahir, who has yet to make an impact for the Proteas but who is quickly, and by all accounts willing, to adapt to a new role that will hopefully bring success.
Weakness – Lower order batting
We’ve seen how often in the last few years runs from eight, nine and 10 have changed the course of Test matches – in South Africa’s case most memorably so at the MCG in 2008. But they still don’t inspire the type of confidence that England’s lower order do. Mark Boucher’s enforced absence will probably see JP Duminy thrown into the No7 spot but he has had various problems playing Swann – so again, there’s a major area for the English to try to take advantage of.
Key Player: Jacques Kallis
It seems obvious, what with him having played over 150 Tests, scored more than 12000 runs and taken 276 wickets but in England, the great man’s record is rather poor. A batting average of 29.30 from 12 Tests in the land which created the sport is something one of the sport’s greatest practitioners will want to improve. Because of his involvement in all areas of the game, he’ll have an influence somewhere, it’s just that he’d like to do so throughout the series. He may not say it publicly, but he owes England and will want to – and must – deliver.
Total Tests played : 138 - SA 29, Eng 56, Draw 53
In England: Total 61 – SA 11, Eng 27, Draw 23
Last Series in SA, 2009/10 – Series drawn 1-1 (four matches)
Last series in England, 2008 – SA won 2-1 (four matches)