England v South Africa – series preview

Everyone excited now? Good, because you should be. Not only do England and South Africa usually churn out gripping series, supplemented by thrilling individual moments (Devon Malcolm in 1994, Donald to Atherton in 1998, Graeme Smith’s enormous fourth innings totals getting not one, but two, England captains out of the door and, a personal favourite, as it kept one of us going in the middle of nowhere on Christmas, Graeme Onions saving two tests with the bat as a number 11 in 2009-10).

So, with that in mind, what do we reckon is going to unfold over the next few weeks?

1. It’s got to be a better series than England vs. India was last summer. Although India with Zaheer Khan in at Lord’s looked like a half decent side, and they were ahead at Trent Bridge until Broad’s hat trick ripped them apart they then played two and half of the most abject Tests either of us can remember (thank God for therapy – without it we’d remember England playing some Tests in the winter of 2006-7; happily, we don’t). The two teams are superbly well balanced – one of us thinks England might have the edge. As the more pessimistic of our pairing, I reckon this is dangerous overconfidence which will see England 60-5 at lunch on Thursday.

2. The bulk of the build up has focused on the two bowling attacks, which are very, very good indeed. So good in fact they probably largely cancel each other out. The difference therefore is probably going to lie with the batting line-ups. Though Kallis averages a chunk less in England throughout the rest of his career and Amla looked a long way short of his best last time played in England in 2008, there are still some handy players in that line up. Especially as Smith loves playing here…

3. Farewell Mark Boucher. The Australian keeper, who made his Test debut in 1997, has finally departed the scene in sad circumstances at Taunton. As he fights for the sight in his damaged eye, we can only wish him all the best.

4. England will probably continue to look to Swann as a key part of the attack. After enduring a tricky winter, England’s jester looks key to their chances once again – the South African top order is stuffed with left handers and, while Tahir is a useful option for the tourists, Swann should help give England the fractional edge which could decide the series.

5. It will be interesting to see how Trott and Pietersen get on in this series. Both in the past have been liable to accusations that they perform poorly against the South Africans indeed, bearing in mind how unruffled Trott usually looks when batting, he did look like he was struggling against the Steyn/Morkel pairing last time out. Of course, this was only the second to fifth matches of his Test career, so he should be able to perform dramatically better this around. KP’s got one or two distractions, what with his attitude to international retirement being akin to a particularly well-oiled revolving door. You’d think England’s chances of winning will depend on at least one of them to make a meaningful contribution.

6. Having jinxed one of England’s key batsmen, we may as well complete the job and talk about Jimmy. Assuming the weather does the decent thing and holds off for as much of the series as possible, he should still find some favourable conditions to exploit. Mind you, if Anderson has shown us anything over the last two years, it is that he is so good the conditions don’t really matter now. In a mad fit of irresponsible optimism, we’ll back him to out-bowl Steyn. Just. Hopefully. Maybe.

Of course, the next few weeks are going to bring the entire nation (and the world) to a standstill, as they watch enthralled by the sight of some of the planet’s finest athletes fighting it out for the title of ‘world’s greatest’. That and some souped-up sports day in Hackney…

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