South Africa's Graeme Smith (left), Vernon Philander (centre) and Hashim Amla will be key as SA go out to prove they've got that killer instinct.

Poor old Andrew Strauss. He must look back to a few weeks ago when his opposite number was looking forward to his 100th Test and go: “Wish mine would be as good.”

Graeme Smith had one of those dream Tests. Make a hundred, lead the team to victory, fly home and become a dad. Strauss, for all the support he is having from those players who will be participating alongside him in a must-win game for England starting at Lord’s on Thursday, will spend a lot of today talking about the player who isn’t there.

That the player concerned produced in the last game one of the best knocks most long-time watchers of the England team can remember, won’t matter a jot. He’s not there, it’s a significant weapon out of England’s armoury but it had to be removed because as the selectors and the England Cricket Board’s managing director, Hugh Morris have suggested, team spirit in the dressing-room is paramount.

Tim Bresnan delightfully sidestepped the week’s drama by pointing out that England may be better off without you know who, and that Jonny Bairstow was perfectly capable of producing something similar to the 149 runs scored in England’s first innings at Headingley. Bresnan reckoned he could too

“I’ve seen Matt Prior play like that, Jonny’s produced innings’ like that in county cricket. Why knows, maybe I’ll go out there and play one like that? It could be the way to go, none of this bobbing and weaving,” said Bresnan.

The word on Bairstow is that he doesn’t enjoy the short stuff. Kemar Roach won their internal skirmishes when the West Indies toured here earlier in the year. The South Africans will definitely aim at his throat when he steps out to bat, but as Bresnan remarked on Tuesday, the century Bairstow scored for the England Lions against Australia A would have significantly boosted the 22-year-old’s confidence. Bresnan wasn’t sure why his fellow Yorkshireman struggled against the West Indies when they bowled short, calling on Bairstow to play his natural game.

Strauss will want to emphasise that to all his players. Normally a conservative captain, at some point in the Test he will have to take risks in order to obtain reward. Part of South Africa’s plan will be to goad him into taking those risks, especially in the early stages of the Test.

That said the South Africans don’t want to be seen as reactive. Both sides have, naturally, sought the positives from the draw at Headingley. England in that they generally improved from The Oval and following Stuart Broad’s burst on the final day believe they can get amongst the SA batsmen. The tourists believe their declaration signalled their intent and reflected their positive approach and as Jacques Kallis reflected they believed they were one wicket away from stealing that match.

South Africa go into the match with a few questions of their own to answer. They’ve been in this position before, of course, with a chance to close out a series and failed to grasp that opportunity – Australia at the Wanderers last November being the most recent example.

“In the past we perhaps just stayed at one level, and didn’t move on, but the processes that we have in place now will keep allowing us to improve as players and as a team,” said Kallis.

All the players are keenly aware of the dangers of complacency. The opposition’s most dangerous player may be absent, but England will want to prove that this mantra about the team being above the individual is the defining quality of their success and what better way to do that than to win the Lord’s match.

As Strauss becomes the eighth Englishman to attain 100 Test caps, the talk about one player must eventually, if only for the period in which the battled takes place on the field, be halted. Strauss would appreciate in a twisted way even as he goes about trying to defeat an SA side that has played some outstanding cricket, that setting fields, implementing strategies and trying to score runs, will be a good way to get his mind off what has been a difficult week. – The Star