In the midst of a great British sporting summer, and sandwiched in between Wimbledon and the Olympics, comes what promises to be a mouth-watering test series between England and South Africa.
England sit atop of the ICC Test rankings, but a series victory for the Proteas would ensure that they knock Andrew Strauss’ side off the summit, just a year after their whitewash in India ensured their own number 1 status.
Though South Africa lay third in the rankings, this series pits arguably the two best Test sides in international cricket against each other in what is a disappointingly short 3-Test series. Given the dismal weather that this British summer has offered so far, it is unlikely that a full 15 days of Test cricket will be played, making even more of a mockery of this shortened series.
Scratch beneath the surface and an intriguing number of subplots to this series emerge, reaching far beyond numerical superiority in the Test rankings. This is captain Graeme Smith’s third tour of England, and in the previous two instances – 2003 and 2008 – both the success of his team and runs with his own bat precipitated the resignations of previous England captains Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan. However defeat in this series for Smith, and his own position may become untenable, having recently resigned from the role in the shorter formats of the game.
In a cricketing era where there is a widely recognised dearth of high quality fast bowling, England and South Africa posses 6 of the top 14 pace bowlers in world cricket. The new-ball partnership on either side poses big questions for the opening batsmen; whilst James Anderson and Stuart Broad have taken 317 wickets in 42 Tests together, their adversaries Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have claimed 303 in just 35. Kevin Pietersen rarely fails to shine against the country of his birth and appears to be bang in form, fresh from his extraordinary innings of 234 not out from 190 deliveries in the County Championship last week.
The single area where South Africa boast a significant advantage over England is in the role of the all-rounder, where Ravi Bopara’s stalling test career faces the daunting prospect of matching up against run-maker extraordinaire Jacques Kallis.
The absence of Mark Boucher for South Africa, forced to retire from international cricket due to a horrendous eye injury last week, has severely hampered their preparations for this 3 match series. The steel and experience of the wicketkeeper will be sorely missed by Smith and places undue pressure upon AB de Villiers to both score runs prolifically and keep wicket.
South Africa, however, face the likely prospect of being caught cold by a fresh, match-fit and rampant England side. The Proteas have played just two rain-affected warm-up matches and have been uninvolved in competitive international cricket since March, whilst England have thrashed West Indies and Australia across all forms of the game in the last two months. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss are sure to be buoyed by the way India’s lack of match practice last summer was ruthlessly exposed, but the South African batting line-up should not be as vulnerable to the swing and seam-friendly conditions.
With England having won seven consecutive Test series on home soil, and the Proteas not tasting defeat outside of South Africa since 2006, proud records and proud reputations are set to tumble.