Sunsport Park in Centurion will be rocking on Boxing Day as England’s cricketers kick off their seven week tour of South Africa. The tour starts with the four match test series, with both the hosts and tourists in a state of flux.
England Looking to the Future
England arrive on the back of a tour of New Zealand that saw Eoin Morgan’s all conquering limited overs team pick up yet another series win, but Joe Root’s test side fall to a familiar 1-0 series loss. Morgan’s side will begin their tour of South Africa in February, putting the early spotlight firmly on the misfiring test team.
Chris Silverwood’s first test series as head coach ended in defeat as England showed all too familiar problems away from home. With the long term aim of regaining The Ashes in Australia in two years time, Silverwood needs to start shaping a new look side that can win a test series away from England’s swing friendly pitches.
England’s biggest quandary is with the ball after a poor series in New Zealand. England failed to take 20 wickets in either match as their attack struggled with both the placid pitches and absence of Jimmy Anderson. England will welcome back their recored wicket taker for this tour along with Mark Wood and the pace friendly conditions in South Africa should be more to the liking of Jofra Archer. Silverwood needs to manage his bowlers carefully with Anderson and Stuart Broad in the twilight of their careers, needing to rotate with the fledgling talents of Archer and Sam Curran whilst Wood won’t be available until the third test.
In Hamilton England bizarrely opted to go without a spinner as Jack Leach was hospitalised, going instead with 5 seamers and leaving Matt Parkinson kicking his heels. England don’t have Moeen Ali available to return for this series with Parkinson retained in the squad, but Leach will likely get the nod.
The biggest plus for England in New Zealand was Root’s return to form with a majestic knock of 226, after averaging below 30 for the year. Another plus came from new boy Ollie Pope who hit a promising 75 at Seddon Park.
England continue to have a dilemma at the top of their batting order, Rory Burns’ second century of the season reaffirmed his place, but it’s uncertain who partners him. Dom Sibley managed scores of just 22, 12 and 4 following a great season in county cricket, whilst Zak Crawley managed just 1 in his first test match innings. Both Sibley and Crawley have been retained in the squad whilst Johnny Bairstow has been recalled, leaving Silverwood with plenty to ponder over his batting line-up.
England’s warm up matches since arriving in South Africa have been marked by some strong batting, particularly from Pope, Root and Joe Denly. The major negative has been a virus in the camp that has seen Archer, Leach and Broad sidelined, forcing Silverwood to call up off-spinner Dominic Bess and all-rounder Craig Overton.
Turmoil for South Africa
Officially South Africa are the fourth best test side in the world. In truth, the Proteas are in turmoil. Top pace bowler Dale Steyn has been forced into retirement, where he joins legendary batsman Hashim Amla. The loss of both has left a gaping hole in the side. Consequently the recent tour of India saw South Africa deliver their worst test display in living memory as they were crushed 3-0.
The statistics behind the series make for even grimmer reading; South Africa took a meagre 25 wickets in 3 matches compared to the full quota of 60 India managed. With the bat South Africa’s top order averaged just 17 runs and managed just two centuries compared with India’s average of over 70 with seven centuries amassed.
Worse than the performances on the pitch is the civil war being fought in South African cricket’s corridors of power. Cricket South Africa are engaged in a bitter legal dispute with the SA Cricketers Association over money and restructuring that could cost professional players their jobs. The CSA are trying to pour oil on these troubled waters by appointing former skipper Graeme Smith as Director of Cricket, but Smith is only confirmed for the next three months in the post. Meanwhile new head coach Mark Boucher was only appointed on the 14th December, just 12 days ahead of the first test.
These are far from ideal circumstances for Boucher and captain Faf du Plessis to be readying their side for a four match series. There were few positives to take from the miserable tour of India, bar the first test centuries from Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock. Consequently Boucher has named six uncapped players in his first squad, most notably ODI specialist batsman Rassie van der Dussen.
A home series will provide faster pitches than those that saw South Africa’s bowlers toil in India with Kagiso Rabada the main threat to England’s batting alongside Vernon Philander who took just 2 wickets in India. With Lungi Ngidi injured fast bowlers Dane Patterson and Beuran Hendricks will be hoping to make their debuts.
Officially this series pits the third and fourth ranked test sides against each other, in reality both need a win to get back on track as they attempt to boost their qualifying hopes for the inaugural ICC Test Championship Final. England won 2-1 on their last visit to South Africa, with Ben Stokes the hero, whilst Rabada took 22 wickets for South Africa. How England manage their pace attack with Anderson returning to bowl in tandem with Archer for the first time could well hold the key to the series against a fragile South African batting lineup.
One side note for the series is England will be wearing black armbands for the first test in honour of their legendary fast bowler Bob Willis, who sadly passed away earlier this month. Willis took 325 test wickets for England, including his fabled 8-43 that skittled Australia at Headingley in 1981. Willis went on to become a hugely respected commentator and the outpouring of grief from the cricketing fraternity upon his passing is a testament to the esteem in which he was held, he will be missed.
First Test: 26- 30th December (Supersport Park, Centurion)
Second Test: 3rd- 7th January (Newlands CG, Cape Town)
Third Test: 16th- 20th January (St Georges Oval, Port Elizabeth)
Fourth Test: 24th- 28th January (The Wanderers, Johannesburg)
Featured Image: Sky Sports