England’s tour of South Africa begins on Boxing Day, with the first of four test matches. They will need to be at their absolute best if they are to compete with their hosts, who boast three of the finest quick bowlers in world cricket, and have batsmen who are as destructive as any in the game’s recent history.
While the tour of the UAE hardly went to plan, there were a few positives to take away from it. Chief among those was the performance of England’s opening bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. They both proved their class, conceding around two runs an over during a series played in terrible conditions for fast bowlers. While Pakistan’s plan was obviously to sit on them, and look to score off the spinners, they did their jobs superbly. South Africa’s batsmen have also hardly been in the glistening, swashbuckling form that many in cricket have come to know. Their recent capitulation at the hands of India might well provide a bit of a hangover.
That said, South Africa’s batsmen will now be on home turf and have a point to prove. Despite the fact that they couldn’t cope with the turning tracks in the sub-continent, players such as Hashim Amla and AB De Villiers are unquestionably world-class. Increasingly so, it seems, home sides are doing all they can to prepare pitches that favour their own bowling attacks. That was certainly the case in India, and that will certainly be the case when England play on Boxing Day. The pitches will be hard and fast, and exactly what the home side are used to. Add to that the issues England seem to have on hard pitches, and it could be a very difficult tour indeed. The sight of Dale Steyn, who has recently been declared fit, and Morne Morkel charging in on those decks might well just stir some of the 2013/14 Ashes memories – hardly something Alastair Cook and his men will respond well to. Mitchell Johnson may have retired, but there are still some pretty sharp quicks on the circuit.
By that logic though, England’s Stuart Broad and Steven Finn should be able to take advantage of those sorts of conditions, while the lateral movement often associated with cricket in South Africa should also help Jimmy Anderson. England’s weakness does not lie in their bowling attack, but undoubtedly in their batting. Although Ian Bell’s form over the last year has been somewhat poor, his absence might work against the tourists, as they will need to avoid the batting collapses so frequently witnessed by the England faithful. A lot rests on the number three’s shoulders. England should favour James Taylor in that position, as his form over the last 6 months for England has been outstanding. This is his chance to cement a test place. Jonny Bairstow will also need to score runs, in order to justify his selection at the expense of Jos Buttler. Buttler has hardly been prolific with the bat, but his recent destruction of Pakistan’s ODI bowling attack has definitely kept him in contention.
Essentially, if England can avoid the dreaded batting collapses, they are in with a chance. The issue of a frontline spinner is less likely to prove decisive in South Africa, so Moeen Ali should get the nod. Anderson and Broad should not disappoint, but England’s overall success largely rests on the shoulders of the top 6.