How Joe Root would love to end one of the most momentous years in English cricket history with victory in the first Test over an unusually vulnerable South Africa to get this all-important series off to the perfect start. Photo: BackpagePix

How Joe Root would love to end one of the most momentous years in English cricket history with victory in the first Test over an unusually vulnerable South Africa to get this all-important series off to the perfect start.

And how frustrating it has been for the England captain to see so much disruption to his plans in the build-up to the start today of a four-Test series he really does need to win to ease the pressure that is starting to build on his leadership.

It was certainly a blow when Chris Woakes, Ollie Pope and Jack Leach yesterday all succumbed to the flu-type symptoms that England had hoped were behind them with the recovery of Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer.

But that paled into insignificance compared to what happened to the family of the man who was responsible more than anyone for the stunning World Cup victory and the miracle at Headingley that have made 2019 so special for England.

How sad and how cruel that the father of Ben Stokes should be struck by a serious illness that left him in a critical condition in a Johannesburg hospital just days after he had arrived in South Africa to celebrate the momentous achievements of his son.

All England’s thoughts yesterday were with Ged Stokes during a far more subdued Christmas than could possibly have been imagined, even when the virus that has reduced the merits of the two warm-up matches here was sweeping through the camp.

England will leave it to Stokes to decide if he faces South Africa today but, knowing him and knowing what a fierce competitor his rugby league-playing dad is, there was a feeling here that Ben will play because that’s what his dad would want. Certainly the signs yesterday were encouraging, with Ged in a stable condition.

Root will certainly make a late call on the make-up of his side because he really will not be sure who will be fit enough until the last moment — far from ideal when England need to show more signs of Test progress here than they did in losing to New Zealand.

‘It definitely would be great to end this year on a winning note,’ said Root. ‘There are huge amounts to play for, especially now. There will be a group of determined players who will want to finish the year very strongly and start this series very well.’

And the wider picture is keeping all the new cricket fans who have been enthused by this special year on board. ‘We always speak about doing anything we can to grow the game as players and obviously you can impact that in the way you play,’ said Root.

‘We’ve harnessed that throughout this year and we want to keep that going. We want to encourage youngsters to pick up a bat and get playing and hopefully inspire the next generation to do special things for England.’

One man who has been doing special things for England for a considerable amount of time now is Jimmy Anderson and, as long as he is not a late sickness victim, he will step out today for one of the biggest achievements yet in his outstanding career.

It really is quite extraordinary that a fast bowler could make 150 Test appearances, but it is testament to Anderson that he has worked so hard to make sure he was ready for this series after a summer ruined by a calf injury.

‘It’s incredible,’ said Root of Anderson’s latest milestone. ‘He’s had significant time away and for a guy as experienced as him to use that time to go away and improve himself physically is a really good example to the rest of the group.

‘It must have been really difficult for Jimmy to miss a series as big as the Ashes but he’s looking in as good shape as I’ve ever seen him. The drive he still has at his age and with the amount of Tests he has behind him is a credit to him.’

It had been felt this was a good time to play South Africa as they have been in crisis on and off the field, but that may just have changed with the arrival of Graeme Smith as director of cricket and his decision to bring in legends Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis to the coaching staff. Captain Faf du Plessis can sense the mood of change.

‘It’s been a breath of fresh air,’ said Du Plessis of the changes at the top of South African cricket. ‘We have been thinking, “Why haven’t these guys been around for the last 10 years?” There was no security but now there is a vision. We are in the infant stages as a Test team but the plan is to get back to the top. There’s real energy in the squad now.’

It will be a series most likely decided by bowling attacks on what should be lively pitches, certainly here at this new Boxing Day venue for England and in Johannesburg at the end of the series. And Root can only hope his team are fit enough to improve on their customary slow start to overseas series. Most crucially, the England captain will be hoping the family situation of the man he relies on so much allows him to step out with him today.

Daily Mail