England will defend their ranking as the top Test team in the world when they come up against a strong South African side in the first of three Test matches at the Oval on Thursday.
The pre-match build-up has concentrated on two outstanding fast bowling attacks — but, as England fast bowler James Anderson and South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis pointed out on Tuesday, the bowlers will have to get past some outstanding batsmen.
“It’s the two best teams in the world,” said Anderson. “Both bowling attacks have been successful over the past 12 to 18 months but if you look at both batting line-ups they’re potentially as strong as well. It’s going to be a clash of two really good teams.”
Meanwhile, Kallis added: “It’s going to be an interesting battle to see who comes out on top. Both sides have got good batters as well. It’s going to be a fantastic series.”
South Africa vs England
South Africa edged England 2-1 in 2008, the last time the two teams met in England, but England have been unbeaten at home since then, rising to number one in the world rankings under captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower.
However, South Africa has not lost an away series since they were beaten by Sri Lanka in 2006. They are ranked third but will take the top place from England if they win the series.
Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan have become a formidable fast-bowling force for England.
But South Africa has some heavy artillery as well in Dale Steyn, the world’s top-ranked bowler, the tall Morne Morkel, and the accurate Vernon Philander, who has taken 51 wickets at an average of 14.15 since making his debut against Australia last November.
England may have an advantage in spin bowling, where off-spinner Graeme Swann has a superior record to South African leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who has yet to make a major impact at Test level.
South Africa will go into the series with minimal preparation.
They had a three-day camp in Switzerland, during which they climbed mountains and got out of their normal ‘comfort zones’, followed by a two-day match against Somerset and a three-day match against Kent.
Both matches were affected by rain and the tourists were unable to dominate against two relatively weak teams.
But Kallis is convinced the preparation has been ideal and that South Africa is ready to hit form from the start of the series.
South Africa has never won in 10 matches at the Oval and has lost all three Tests at the venue since returning to international cricket in 1991.
Remarkably on each of the latter occasions, they lost despite winning the toss and batting first. All three Tests were the last matches of a series.
Kallis regards the record as nothing more than a statistical oddity but it is a puzzling statistic, given that the Oval normally provides pace and bounce for fast bowlers, which has long been a South African strength.
An unusually wet summer could mean the pitch may not have the hardness normally expected by this stage of a season, which could in turn lead to swing and seam may prove more important than outright speed.
The weather could be a factor, with some rain expected on each of the first three days of the match.
South Africa will hand wicketkeeping duties to vice-captain AB de Villiers following a career-ending eye injury to Mark Boucher in the first warm-up game.
Although the loss of the experienced Boucher is a blow, it gives the tourists a chance to field an extra specialist, with batsman JP Duminy set to feature.
England: 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Ravi Bopara, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan/Steven Finn, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson.
South Africa: 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 Jacques Rudolph, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Imran Tahir, 11 Morne Morkel.