Evaluating the forthcoming four-Test series, which begins on Saturday, between South Africa and an emerging England side may seem a straightforward task given the hosts are ranked number one in the world and have lost just two of their last 16 series.
The latest of those reverses, their first on the road in nine years, was sustained on the dry, turning terrains of India where Hashim Amla’s side, still adjusting to life with the mercurial right-hander in charge, failed to cope with the home side’s spin attack.
They wouldn’t be the first or the last to suffer an indignant defeat on the sub continent as was evident in England’s efforts in the UAE where, despite some valiant performances, they recently succumbed to Pakistan. South Africa’s batting, like England’s with Alastair Cook and Joe Root, has a couple of standout performers in Amla and the destructive AB de Villiers, but their line up also features a number of players scratching around for form and consistency.
Injuries, lost tosses and some indifferent batting contributed to a 3-0 loss in India, which could easily have been 4-0, although it must be noted that Amla’s men played the last three tests without Dale Steyn. Losing one of the world’s premier fast bowlers through a groin injury cost South Africa a cutting edge, a leader and a talisman and they have now lost 10 of their last 15 without the 32-year-old.
News that Steyn came through an intensive fitness test last Thursday will come as a huge relief to coach Russell Domingo, who remains under pressure given his side’s torment in India.
The hosts hardened still further in the markets for Saturday’s First Test with the news that James Anderson is a significant doubt with a calf strain, an injury which looks likely to rob England of one of their true world-class performers.
It appears highly unlikely the England management would risk the country’s leading wicket-taker with the second Test in Cape Town scheduled just two days after Durban and Anderson’s increasingly-fragile body could offer Warwickshire’s Chris Woakes a chance of a recall.
However, cast your mind back to Trent Bridge in the summer Stuard Broad led the attack in place of the absent Anderson, missing with a sidestrain.
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Broad blew away the Australians with a match-winning spell of 8-15 and England’s stats with or without Anderson are roughly the same which provides supporters of the visitors with hope and some Christmas cheer. The place of Jonny Bairstow could also be up for review with the Yorkshire glove man failing to convince with his work standing up to the spinners.
That could mean a reprieve for the back in-form Jos Buttler who would bat at seven, a place in front of Moeen Ali who will return to eight after the failed experiment of him opening in the UAE.
The Worcestershire all-rounder bowled England to victory in the last warm-up game, taking 6-77 in Pietermaritzburg against South Africa ‘A’, and I wonder if he could have more of an influence on the series than some think.
Graeme Swann was England’s top wicket-taker with 21 victims when the sides last met in South Africa in 2009-10 and it could be worth noting Durban is currently suffering from drought with the local domestic side, Dolphins, including two spinners in its XI given the dry nature of the surfaces.
Ali is no Swann, but he is a useful performer who displayed dip and rip in Pietermaritzburg and he lends the England team some balance, even if the Pakistan game plan of disrupting his lengths paid rich dividends. Bar Amla and de Villiers, the South African top order looked very uncomfortable against the turning ball in India and Ali could be a touch of value at 5-1 to top the wicket tally.
Steyn should do the same for the hosts, even if he isn’t yet operating to his maximum, but they will miss the ever-reliable line-and-length machine Vernon Philander who must sit out the first two games with a football-related injury.
The frailties of the hosts and England’s surprisingly good record at Kingsmead – they have only lost once in 15 tests there and that defeat was in 1928 – means South Africa are difficult to fancy at around 5/4 even with the visitors’ top order as yet untested.
Therefore, take the 13-10 draw no bet with bet365 that Cook’s men can enhance their brilliant Durban record and make a winning start to a fascinating series.