Ryan Elliott dives into England's impending Test series against South Africa, bringing you a host of ante-post selections!
Can there ever be too much cricket to enjoy? After a truly unforgettable, World Cup-winning, Ashes-infused summer, England’s busy winter of action is well-underway, and this mouth-watering, four-Test series against South Africa is the perfect way to bridge the gap between 2019 and 2020. Bring it on!
This certainly has the look of a series between two sides in transition. The hosts have named six uncapped players in their squad, while England are still looking to bed the likes of Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope into this Test side.
The bookies are finding the end result a tough one to call – with England installed as very narrow favourites, but I’m going to look at a slightly bigger price and back a 2-2 draw.
I’m fairly confident we won’t be seeing any draws this series.
England have drawn just two of their last 21 Test matches (one entirely down to rain). This is down to a variety of factors: firstly the bowler-friendly conditions back at home, but also the consistently poor, cut-and-thrust English batting which we’ve been served up for so long.
Indeed, South Africa haven’t drawn any of their last 24 Tests (not since a stalemate in Hamilton back in March 2017; interestingly where England secured their last draw on a dead pitch), so realistically, we should be looking at all four matches providing a result.
Let’s look at England’s recent history in away Test series’: in their last six tours, the Three Lions have been outclassed by India, New Zealand (twice), Australia and the West Indies – beating only Sri Lanka.
The sorry mix of ineffective bowlers and brainless batting have contributed to this poor away record, and while there were signs of improvement against New Zealand in November, there’s still a lot of work to do.
The Proteas haven’t looked too clever, either. They come into this having lost their last five Tests: a 3-0 demolition at the hands of India on the road, as well as a 2-0 home series defeat against Sri Lanka (although one of these losses was virtue of a Ben-Stokes-at-Headingley style wonder-innings from Kusal Perera).
Considering South Africa have won home series’ against India, Australia and Pakistan since the start of 2018, I do believe they should be slight favourites for this series, but if England can harness the potential that’s clearly at their fingertips, I can see them being more than a match for the hosts.
England beat South Africa 2-1 back in 2016 during their last Test series in The Rainbow Nation, but with both sides so evenly-matched, a 2-2 draw looks the most likely outcome.
Top South Africa Batsman
Moving onto the best South African batsman market, and I have two selections who represent good value.
Captain Faf du Plessis and experienced opener Dean Elgar sit at the top of the market, but I’m not going to go with either.
Du Plessis is one of only two batsmen to be averaging over 31 (minimum five innings) for South Africa in 2019, but he’s still 136 runs shy of Quinton de Kock’s total of 584.
Furthermore, the 35-year-old averages just 27.09 against England, so although he’s had a solid year in terms of run scoring, I don’t think 5/2 is much of a price for him to finish as the hosts’ top scorer.
Indeed, Elgar’s had a tough year by his standards – scoring just 329 in 14 innings at 27.41. He averages 41.07 against England, but once again I don’t think 3/1 is a particularly tempting price.
The aforementioned de Kock at 5/1 is certainly a more solid value pick. He comes into this series as his country’s top Test run scorer of the year, and has the impressive ability to shift through the gears with relative ease.
The wicket-keeper batsman is a serious talent.
As an outside shot, I also believe uncapped Rassie van der Dussen could be a shrewd selection in this market at 7/1.
It’s looking likely the 30-year-old will play against England on Boxing Day, and that’s certainly a cause for optimism as far as South Africa are concerned.
Van der Dussen has been selected primarily due to his 50-over form, and although this clearly doesn’t automatically mean he’ll be a successful Test player (just ask Jason Roy), averaging 73.77 in 14 One Day innings in 2019 is mightily impressive. His modest strike-rate of 81.87 is evidence of his temperament; as we saw during the World Cup, van der Dussen isn’t a top-of-the-order slasher, but instead a cool-headed accumulator, and this style could suit him well in Test Cricket.
The value lies with de Kock or van der Dussen.
Top England Batsman
Onto the England batsmen, and there’s only one choice for me here: Ben Stokes, at a chunky 6/1.
Before I focus on Stokes, I’m going to quickly run through the market.
Joe Root is the 2/1 favourite, which I’m going to steer well clear of. The England skipper’s 226 against New Zealand a few weeks ago ended a very poor run of scores, but that Hamilton pitch was as flat as a pancake – evidenced by the fact that Root was one of five centurions.
Furthermore, in the cold, hard light of day, Root has just four Test centuries since August 2017, and while his talent has never been in question, he’s not showing nearly enough form for me to touch 2/1.
Rory Burns has seriously impressed me this year, and he’s next at 3/1. The Surrey man added another century to his collection in Hamilton, and he’s undoubtedly England’s best opener since Alastair Cook made his debut in 2006.
However, the prospect of opening the batting against Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander means he’s going to occasionally get out cheaply, and while Burns looks mightily accomplished in an England shirt, 3/1 is still a tad skinny.
It’s a similar situation for the inexperienced Dom Sibley, who is 5/1 to top score for England. Sibley’s leg-side-heavy game has thrown up a few concerns for me, and I fear South Africa’s quality attack may figure him out at some stage.
I wouldn’t consider Jos Buttler or Joe Denly in this market either (although I do like Denly, it has to be said); Ollie Pope at 10/1 on the other hand, is very generous, as he’s a much better player than what we’ve seen so far during his short Test career.
But how can you look past Stokes at 6/1? Top England scorer in The Ashes, looked a million dollars in New Zealand—before a few tame dismissals—and I’m still adamant he’s England’s most technically proficient batsman.
Stokes is the only man to average over 36 for England in 2019 (48.25), which shows just where the side’s problems lie, and he also top-scored for the Three Lions during their 2016 Test series in South Africa.
Top South Africa Bowler
The top bowler markets always throw up shorter prices, but I’m going to put 3pts into Kagiso Rabada to claim the most English wickets.
Rabada, Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj are the main players in this market.
I’m going to count Maharaj out straight away. South African decks generally aren’t too spinner-friendly—shown my Maharaj’s fairly modest average of 31.12 and strike rate of 53.83 on home soil—and the 29-year-old’s primary job will be to hold down an end to build pressure.
Also, to their credit, England have actually been fairly proficient against spin in recent months. Mitchell Santner was pretty much nullified in New Zealand, while Nathan Lyon was oddly ineffective during the Ashes.
So, it comes down to Rabada or Philander, but it’s the former’s extra pace which might just have the edge on the fast, bouncy pitches I’m expecting (particularly against England’s tail).
Philander’s control means his average in South Africa is slightly better than Rabada’s (18.65 v 19.13), but Rabada’s strike rate is 32.70 compared to Philander’s 42.01.
With Philander the only realistic contender to Rabada in this market, 2/1 is well worth taking for the 24-year-old to be South Africa’s top dog.
Top England Bowler
Finally, let’s explore England’s bowling options.
It’s important to identify who is actually likely to play all four Test matches. Sam Curran and Chris Woakes are essentially battling it out for a place on their own, and you’d be brave to assume either will play every game.
There are still question marks over Jimmy Anderson’s fitness, and even if he does make it through the first couple of Tests, there has to be a chance Root and the selectors rest him at some stage.
Ben Stokes’ injury issues will limit his bowling capabilities, while Jack Leach will play a similar role to Maharaj…or perhaps he won’t play at all.
That leaves Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer as the two bowlers who are most likely to play in all four matches.
Neither particularly impressed in New Zealand, with Broad claiming four wickets and Archer just two, but as I previously mentioned, South Africa’s pitches are akin to those found in Australia: quick and bouncy.
This should suit Archer down the ground, which is why I’m backing him to return to form and finish the series as England’s top bowler. The pitches in New Zealand did him no favours, but he’ll be aware that if he steams in with a little hostility, the rewards are there.
Broad will have less joy: he took just 11 wickets in the last Ashes Series Down Under (yes, it’s a different country but conditions are similar), and his lack of pace means line, length and control will be his primary weapons this series, whereas Archer has a little more zip, which should serve him well.
In all honestly the batting markets have much more value to get stuck into, but there are good cases to be made for Archer and Rabada, both at 2/1, to shine for their respective sides.