LONDON - South Africa and England have engaged in some pulsating series’ in the last 20 years. The matches have been competitive and feisty and the four Test series starting at Lord’s on Thursday should be no different. Stuart Hess weighs up the strengths and weakness of the teams.
ALASTAIR COOK: No Longer burdened by the captaincy, Cook can concentrate totally on his main job at the top of the order. His form for Essex has been very good - three hundreds and one half-century in 10 innings. His Test statistics are prodigious; 140 matches, over 11 000 runs, with 30 centuries.
JOE ROOT: The face of English cricket for the last four years is now leader of the national team. Root has an awesome record at home - eight of his 11 centuries have come in England. How the captaincy impacts his batting will be one of the major story-lines of this series.
BEN STOKES: The South Africans have more than enough data at their disposal when it comes to the Kiwi-born, one time rugby league wannabee. He was an intimidating force when the two teams met in South Africa last year. He hits the ball with murderous force, is a fine seam bowler and is an athletic fielder.
HOME GROUND ADVANTAGE: England have a prodigious home record, losing just four of the 19 series they’ve hosted in the last decade - but South Africa.
KEATON JENNINGS AND GARY BALLANCE: It has to be noted that in Ballance’s case he’s in some hot form for Yorkshire in the County Championship having scored over 800 runs at an average of more than 100 - but he’s done that batting at No 5 and for this series, Root wants him at No 3. In his last 21 Test innings’ he has scored just two half-centuries. Jennings meanwhile, started his Test career in a blaze of glory, but has barely flickered since.
FITNESS Stuart Broad and James Anderson have had some troubling ailments recently and there were concerns about them playing the first Test. However, this is a short and sharp series - four Tests in four weeks - which will take it’s toll. There are also fears about Stokes’ workload with the ball given his knee problems.
RESILIENCE: We saw it throughout last summer most notably in that opening Test match where, without AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel and with a debutant spinner, they beat Australia in Perth.
QUINTON DE KOCK: A key component of that resilient streak is De Kock who, on a number of occasions last summer turned matches decisively in the Proteas’s favour with some smartly effervescent batting. Perth, Hobart, Wellington are all Tests that bear testimony to his match-winning strengths. His natural game is to attack and his ability to score all around the wicket and against any type of bowling means he’s a difficult player for the opposition to reign in.
BOWLING Even in the absence of the great Steyn, South Africa’s is an outstanding attack. When conditions have allowed, Rabada and Philander have got the ball to ‘reverse’ and with Morkel back - and in form - they have more pace and someone able to utilise any bounce in the surface. With three left-handers in England’s top-order, Philander and Morkel will be licking their lips, while Maharaj provides very good control and is wicket-taking threat, too.
INEXPERIENCE: For the first Test, South Africa has a new captain, a debutant opener and a middle order batsman in poor form and with just one Test cap in Theunis de Bruyn. Even if he doesn’t play, and Chris Morris does, the big all-rounder has only two caps. Duanne Olivier the back-up seamer, has played just one Test.
UNCERTAINTY WITHIN CAMP: Players have been coming and going, as different individuals are utilised for the different formats. There’s been personal problems for the coach and the captain to deal with and understandably their focus isn’t just on cricket. There’s also been other distractions; the future of the coach, the AB de Villiers saga foremost among those.
PHILANDER’S FITNESS: A vital element in the bowling unit, especially in English conditions, which will aid his disciplined method of attack, but there are concerns over his ability to last. Already short on experience in key areas, SA simply can’t afford the loss of Philander.