SA V Eng: Series Preview

Hold tight for a rough ride as England and South Africa prepare to lock horns

What a difference a year and a bit makes. The 2003 series between these sides suggested that South Africa, despite events at The Oval, had been revitalised under their new captain and looked ready to move beyond the horrors of Cronjegate to take their rightful place as Australia’s most serious challengers. England, on the other hand, had been lucky to draw the series, and even that result owed much to Kirtley & Bicknell who were nobody’s idea of a future test attack. Their batting had been patchy, the younger quicks looked years away from maturity and the idea that England would start the 2004/05 series as favourites would have been laughed out of court. But that is exactly where we find ourselves this week.

The main reason for England’s rising stock has been well documented. Even if we take Allan Donald’s claim in the latest “Wisden Cricketer” that England now have “the best seam attack in the world” with fairly large quantities of salt, the strides taken by Harmison, Hoggard, Flintoff & Giles this year have given Michael Vaughan a cutting edge that most of his predecessors would have killed for. If Donald is to be believed, his country’s current attack “is lacking penetration, punch and pace”, and the selectors are “extremely worried where they are going to get bowlers from”. He’s probably over-stating things, but he does have a point. Even twelve months ago, five of those notoriously poor travellers from the Caribbean managed to average over 45 in South Africa. Obviously SA still won comfortably – the visitors’ bowling was so feeble that you could be forgiven for believing the old gag that they really were from the Women’s Institute – but there were occasions when the hosts’ attack looked insipid. That impression gained momentum in new Zealand where the Kiwis scored truck-loads in drawing and winning the first two tests before Nicky Boje inspired a series levelling win in the third.

It would probably be unwise to take the analysis any further. 12 years ago, Keith Fletcher, then England’s manager, famously wrote off Anil Kumble after watching him fail to make any impact in South Africa. Of course, on his home pitches, Kumble was an entirely different proposition, and England were duly thrashed. By the same token, I wouldn’t draw many conclusions from the struggles of the South African attack in Sri Lanka and India and I’m pretty sure that England’s current manager is too intelligent to repeat the mistake of his namesake. South Africa still possess one world class bowler in Shaun Pollock who, if his pace isn’t what it was, has continued to produce outstanding performances. His opening partner Ntini is a perfectly good performer, especially at home and the all-rounders Hall and De Bruyn are also quite capable of turning a game with an inspired spell.

And it isn’t as if England’s batting is entirely solid. Trescothick had a thoroughly moderate time against the South African attack in 2003 until he found a spectacularly flat Oval track and, crucially, remembered how to leave a ball. Strauss must surely be more seriously tested than he was during the English summer, and that’s before you worry about none of this winter’s tests being played at Lord’s. We don’t know which of Butcher and Key will play at three and Vaughan has yet to come close to repeating the form that took him to the top of the PWC ratings. That being said, Thorpe looks as good as ever and Flintoff, now that he seems to have dropped his Caribbean habit of giving it away when the job is half completed, increasingly looks the real deal in the top six. England should generally score enough runs to be fireproof, but you wouldn’t bet against them collapsing at some stage in the series.

The South African batting still looks strong, with Smith and Kallis boasting test averages that are in a different league to any of their English counterparts. Gibbs isn’t so far behind them, and, with Rudolph increasingly looking the part, it’s clear that this side is capable of some big scores. It remains to be seen how much they will miss Kirsten though. As yet, neither Van Jaarsveld nor Dippenaar looks an adequate replacement for the great scrapper, and, if the hosts do find themselves in a hole, England will be pleased not to see him there to repeat his heroics of Headingley and Durban. They would, in all probability, also be happy to see Mark Boucher’s absence continue for at least one more series. From here, once you get past Kallis, the middle and lower middle order does seem to lack the toughness of yesteryear. And that, as much as their inability to replace Allan Donald, may just give England the edge this winter.

But it will be anything but easy. And it should be wonderfully competitive, with both sides desperate for the win. South Africa need some success to convince themselves that the renaissance under Smith has not ground to a halt. England must win if they are to shape up as any sort of contenders for the subsequent Ashes contest. Previous series between the two sides have contained a fair bit of needle, partially due to the massive culture clash between some of the South Africans’ brand of competitive Christianity and England’s secular cynicism. Given the changes in the sides over recent years, that particular issue shouldn’t be to the fore, but, with both sides feeling the pressure, we can expect some lively sessions. But at this stage, there are too many unanswered questions to forecast the result with any degree of confidence.

For England, will Harmison and Flintoff continue their form of much of this year, or will it prove to be a flash in the pan? Will Jones or Anderson make the same step up this winter as Harmison managed in the Caribbean? Will the increased competition for batting places focus the minds of some of their more inconsistent performers, or will they be as fragile as they have previously looked against the better sides? For South Africa, will Smith repeat his heroics of 2003, and will their talented batting generally be too good for England’s battery of quicks? Which of the newcomers will take their chance to establish themselves? Will be bowling be rejuvenated under the watchful eye of the fiercely competitive Jennings? And that’s before we even begin to think about matters like the makeup of the hosts’ side and the sort of pitches we might see this year.

Five years ago, the tour kicked off on a lethal track at the Wanderers with the hosts secure in the knowledge that Donald and Pollock would be far more dangerous than their English counterparts. Will we see a repeat this year, or will they be too worried about Harmison to prepare a wicket that would overtly help Pollock and Ntini? Questions, questions and yet more questions. Most South African observers seem to make England huge favourites, but I think they’re over-stating things. Most English observers think England should just win, but we’re aware that it’s been a mighty long time since we’ve won in South Africa (OK, so they were banned for 20 years, but not many observers seriously think the England sides of the 1970’s & 1980’s would have won over there anyway). Still, enough of the talk. Let battle commence.

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