Proteas set to get down and dirty
England, despite a year filled with inconsistency in the Test format, go into the four match series as firm favourites against the Proteas. England may have been inconsistent but they can at least point to a World Cup trophy in their cabinet, while Faf du Plessis’ men have had a year to forget that included the team’s worst World Cup showing and defeats in their last five Test matches - including a series loss at home to Sri Lanka.
South Africa goes into the first Test with preparation that has been far from ideal. The administrative fiasco meant Graeme Smith was only appointed as an interim Director of Cricket two weeks ago while the team’s head coach, Mark Boucher, has had just over a week to train the squad.
However there has been a lightening of the mood in South African cricket in that period and it is noticeable that the players are feeling much better about themselves.
Du Plessis explained how they have all appreciated the interaction they’ve had with the new coaches that include Charl Langeveldt and batting consultant Jacques Kallis. That may give the players a lift for the first couple of sessions in Centurion on Thursday, but how long will it last, especially if England can land an early blow?
This is by no means a great England team. They rely far too much on Joe Root and Ben Stokes with the bat, but they have a lot of depth and experience with the ball and against a fragile South African batting line-up, that along with Stokes, could be the key differences in the series.
What South Africa will bring to the fore is the ability to scrap. That element was missing from their performances in India and Boucher will have worked extra hard to instil it in the squad in the last few days. “Our guys are going to come out there fighting and with Bouchie (Boucher) as coach, he has already installed that fighting manner within the team,” said Kallis.
Boucher talked a lot about “getting dirty,” which may be an indicator as to how South Africa will approach this series. It won’t be pretty, but if they can get England into a scrap they may stand a chance.
What will be crucial, as Kagiso Rabada stated, is to land the first blow. Too often in recent years the Proteas have started slowly and needed to fight their way back into matches and series. In this case, their confidence may be too fragile for that and they will need to make an impression early to get that confidence flowing.
Boucher, Kallis, Enoch Nkwe and Langeveldt can only do so much off the field - on it Du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock and Rabada, the leadership core, will have to pull the side along and get into England’s faces.
The tourists have not had the easiest build up either. Their squad, particularly the bowlers have been hit by a flu bug, that left the likes of Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer bedridden until yesterday. Both bowled five overs at training and according to the squad’s management showed no signs of physical weakness. Root talked earlier this week of the need for everyone to be honest about their readiness and also trusting the players. “You want to make sure they can really let themselves go and get through 20 overs in a day, 25 if they absolutely had to.”