JOHANNESBURG – England will arrive in South Africa for one of the most critical home series for the Proteas in recent memory, both battle-hardened and possibly better equipped for the four-match Test series that starts on the Day of Goodwill, Boxing Day.
England will play two Test matches against New Zealand later this month before heading to South Africa for the highlight of the local summer.
Joe Root’s team will be better prepared than the Proteas, who for the most part will be involved in the T20 Mzansi Super League.
If the South African players feel like it, they could play in the round of four-day fixtures that starts on December 19, but there has been a reluctance among the nationally contracted players to increase their workloads and in this instance it could mean - if they do play the December 19 round of matches - they would be playing for three consecutive weeks, with the Boxing Day Test followed immediately by the New Year’s Test.
The decision may be taken out of the players’ hands, however, if a new Director of Cricket is appointed and that person, in conjunction with a new head coach for the Proteas, deems playing first-class cricket a necessity after six weeks of T20 gumph.
One could certainly argue that in light of what happened in India the batsmen need as much time in the middle as possible.
Morne Morkel feels that England are in good fettle ahead of that series and the two Tests against New Zealand will show if or how far ahead of the Proteas they are.
“They are a good cricket team,” said Morkel, who has faced many of the English players recently during his stint with English County, Surrey.
He cited three young batsmen - Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley - whom the South Africans may encounter this summer.
“I play with Rory Burns and before The Ashes, I was nervous for him. But day in and day out he spends endless hours in the nets. He worked out a plan that works for him,” Morkel said of his 29-year-old County teammate.
Burns scored a century and two half-centuries in the series against Australia where most of England’s batsmen struggled.
“I don’t think he’s played on fast, bouncy wickets; The Oval is not as fast as it used to be,” Morkel added.
Neither Crawley nor Sibley has played for England yet.
“Sibbers is a typical English batsmen who will bat time,” Morkel said of his former Surrey teammate, while he described Crawley as being “very attacking”.
Morkel also mentioned 21-year-old Ollie Pope, another Surrey teammate who played two Tests last year against India.
“I won’t be surprised if he plays (against New Zealand and South Africa) ... he’s a quality, quality, quality player,” Morkel stressed.
“If Root goes to No 3, (Pope) can definitely bat at four, and if I was the England selectors I’d give him a run.”
With that kind of insight, it must be hoped that someone at Cricket SA gets in touch with Morkel while he is in the country during the Mzansi Super League, to give them the lowdown on some of the English players.
England will hold a significant advantage by the time the first ball is bowled at SuperSport Park on December 26, but at least the Proteas and whoever the brainstrust around the national team will be, can give themselves some info on the tourists by calling Morkel.