“Let’s get reeeeaaaaddddyyyyy…” Rumbles between South Africa and England have always had something of a seismic quality. Think Graeme Smith bringing down three successive England captains, the battle for the Test mace in 2012, or South Africa being Broadsided at the Wanderers in 2016. Two Test heavyweights who know how to tango.
This time, however, both camps look a little battered and bruised before the series has even begun. South Africa have hastily picked through the rubble of their 2019 winter, appointed an entirely new management structure, and will be attempting to end a five-Test losing streak when they take the field in Centurion. England, meanwhile, are also being led by a new head coach, and arrive in South Africa looking to improve on a pretty awful touring record that has seen them lose five of their last six away series; and that, too, while dealing with a sickness bug that continues to deplete their resources.
News of the illness affecting Ben Stokes’ father has cast an even darker pall over the tourists’ preparations. England have asked for privacy and it remains unclear whether the Test vice-captain will be available for selection; either way, his focus is bound to be on more important matters.
If Faf du Plessis was in a more optimistic mood after spending some time at a training camp with Mark Boucher and his entourage of golden oldies, assembled in the last ten days by Smith (now South Africa’s director of cricket), then there are still issues to ponder. The 16-man squad picked for the first two Tests contained as many as six players uncapped in this format, and they have lost Temba Bavuma to injury. In Bavuma’s absence, Rassie van der Dussen has been earmarked for a debut, while Zubayr Hamza, the man in possession at No. 3, is only two Tests into his career. Holes left by the retirements of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers (for now) loom large.
It was South Africa’s traditional bowling strength that underpinned a run of seven consecutive series wins at home, until they were unexpectedly upended by Sri Lanka at the start of the year. While Dale Steyn has also hung up his chainsaw, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander remain to orchestrate the trail by seam – although in Philander’s case, only until the end of the series, when he too will be retiring. Du Plessis will be hoping that home comforts can help Anrich Nortje prove he is ready to step up.
Similar problems abound for England, who are trying to bed in a new top order, will rely on a couple of all-time greats to lead the bowling, and have concerns around the balance of the XI. Illness confined Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Jack Leach to the team hotel for most of England’s two warm-up games in Benoni – though given Archer’s experience with the Kookaburra in New Zealand, he may not have missed the opportunity for another bowl all that much.
With spinners averaging 64.77 over the last ten years in Centurion (compared to 26.46 for pace bowlers), England seem to be leaning towards playing an all-pace attack. Both Broad and Archer have been able to resume training and seem set to take their places alongside James Anderson, who at 37 is lining up for his 150th Test after five months out with a calf injury. If South Africa continue their recent trend of producing lively surfaces for Test cricket, England will believe they have a fighting chance.
Rather than the slick build-up of a world-title bout, this series bears the hallmarks of a last-minute scramble to get everything ready in time for Christmas. South Africa are hoping to tear the wrapping off on a brand-new era, while for England the series represents a sizeable bauble as they plot an Ashes assault in 2021-22. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the World Test Championship (England sit sixth, South Africa bottom).
A decade ago, these teams played out a memorable drawn series that marked the start of their rivalry for the No. 1 ranking. Now they find themselves rubbing along in the chasing pack, looking to re-establish their credentials once again. It could be a messy old affair, but then isn’t that all part of the festive fun? Time to get stuck in once again.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLLLL
In the spotlight
Ten years ago, Rassie van der Dussen was “14th man” at the Centurion Test between South Africa and England. Now he is set to make his Test debut, at the age of 30 and on the back of a 113-match first-class career that has yielded more than 7000 runs. Van der Dussen eventually forced his way into South Afirca’s limited-overs set-up last year, on the back of his MSL exploits, and currently averages 73.77 in ODIs; but, as he put it in the build-up to this match, “my next big challenge is to become a three-format player”.
He is only two Tests into his career, but already Dom Sibley has been set a number of posing questions. How does he deal with the short ball? What are his off-side release shots? Can he convert undoubted obduracy into match-shaping scores? An opener who is difficult to knock over is precisely what most teams are after in this day and age, but Sibley’s tendency to become a sitting target allowed New Zealand to work him over at leisure and expose areas of weakness; South Africa’s quicks won’t need a second invite to do the same.
South Africa look set to name two Test debutants in their XI, with van der Dussen in line to replace Bavuma and Dwaine Pretorius favoured in the allrounder spot. In contrast with England’s thinking, the home side will probably include the spinner Keshav Maharaj, in order to lighten the workload on the quicks. Du Plessis indicated they would name a 12 beforehand, with Dane Paterson or Beuran Hendricks likely to be the seam-bowling back-up.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Zubayr Hamza, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Dwaine Pretorius, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Anrich Nortje
England need to make a decision about their attack, with Leach a major doubt – he missed training again on Wednesday, as did Ollie Pope and Chris Woakes, adding to the list of players who have come down ill. Sam Curran’s left-arm variation possibly edged him ahead of Woakes anyway, while Jonny Bairstow would be the prime candidate for a recall if Pope is ruled out. There is greater optimism about Stokes’ involvement, with his father’s condition improving.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope/Jonny Bairstow, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 James Anderson, 11 Stuart Broad
Pitch and conditions
Chris Silverwood revealed in the build-up that England’s data analysis suggested “seam was the way forward” in Centurion, while du Plessis said the pitch had a reputation of going up and down as the game progressed – particularly if it gets hot. The forecast is for the temperature to be in the 30s C, but there will also be the humidity to deal with, and the potential for some thundery showers during the course of the game. A decent Boxing Day crowd is also expected, with plenty of England fans making a festive trip up to the Highveldt.
Stats and trivia
“They have got a batting line-up that is young, but also that has some experience. There is an opportunity for our bowlers there. I’m sure England will say the same thing, about our line-up and they will back their bowlers against us.”
Faf du Plessis
“I’ve never played against a SA team that isn’t full of pride and passion and isn’t giving everything to try and win the game and do their best.”