The upcoming Test series between England and South Africa is one of the most eagerly anticipated contests in recent times. It pits the two best attacks in world cricket fighting for the number one spot in the world rankings. Currently occupied by Andy Flower’s men, they will be hoping to send a statement to the Australian’s by winning yet another home series.
Australia may have climbed back to second in the Test rankings, but it is South Africa that poses the biggest threat to England. They are the last side to win a Test series on English soil back in 2008 and in Dale Steyn they possess the best bowler in world cricket. His supporting act of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir is enough to striker fear into the most talented of batting line-ups, yet Andrew Strauss and co will feel confident of continued success.
It is a series that evokes plenty of excitement and to further give us a sense of expectation we spoke to former South Africa captain Kepler Wessels who is working as an ambassador for ESPNcricinfo.com. The retired opening batsman was the man charged with leading the reformed side after the abolition of apartheid and he went on to play against England on numerous occasions. Here he gives us his thoughts and predictions on the series which begins at The Oval on July 19.
Boucher’s Retirement and the Ramifications for the South African Line-Up
"It was a real shame as he would have wanted to finish in style, so from his personal point of view it will be absolutely devastating. The South African side will miss his presence, his experience and what he brings to the team. What I see them doing is keeping with AB de Villiers and then picking an extra batsman. It will probably enable them to bring in JP Duminy at number seven, which will be handy for them as he bowls off-spin as well. It will also lengthen their tail as it means they have seven guys who are good enough to make the Test side as a batsman."
The Battle of the Seamers
"England’s bowling attack is very competitive, especially under classical English conditions. They have great variation in the attack which makes them different from the sides I played against. I played England many times and you always expected a classical attack but this one is a bit better as it does offer different things. It is also proven that they can bowl teams out twice, especially when the ball moves around. If the weather persists then that attack will test the best batting line-up in the world so that will be a good contest.
"Having said that the South African attack is very strong as well. When you have Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Kallis in your seam department you are always going to be strong. It will be interesting to see if Philander can maintain his magnificent form since his Test debut. The England batsmen have a slight advantage as they will have seen that type of bowler on the county circuit quite regularly. What he does is bowl it around 132kph; he is very accurate and he just hits the seam and makes it move both ways. Other countries haven’t seen this and that is where he has had his success, he has good skill with his line and length. It will be a bigger test for him this time as the England top six are used to this but you can’t underestimate him as he is a real competitor and he gives it his all every time."
The War of Spin: Swann vs Tahir
"At the moment that is where England have the edge as [Graeme] Swann has been in prolific form over the last two or three years, while Imran Tahir is yet to come into his own at international level. Swann can do two jobs, he can do a holding role in the first innings and if you are trying to win it in the second he can do that as well. Tahir hasn’t really done either yet. The biggest problem is that his stock delivery, his leg-spinner, is not a big enough weapon. He relies on his googly and the England players have seen him quite a bit on the county circuit. If he does get it together then he could be a key factor but I think England are ahead in this department."
The Importance of Cook and Strauss
"I think it will be a good contest to see the openers against Steyn as he can swing the ball back into the left-hander late. He will be attacking the stumps and looking for the lbw. I think from a balance point of view both the openers will have to be on top of their game as Morkel also bowls well to left-handers. He can come round the wicket and take the ball across the left-hander which makes him dangerous. Cook and Strauss have often provided England with the perfect start so it will be an interesting battle, especially if the weather persists."
Can Graeme Smith Maintain his average of over 70 in England?
"He is very important to South Africa’s cause but he has been injured and had problems with his fitness so it will be interesting to see if he has had enough time in the nets and at the crease before the Test starts. When he gets away to a good start then invariably so does the rest of the line up, so if you can get him early and expose the likes of [Alviro] Peterson [Hashim] Amla and [Jacques] Kallis to the new ball then you have a real chance. It will be especially difficult against Anderson as he is a lbw candidate early in the innings."
Are South Africa Undercooked
"My only question mark will be early in the series and that is simply due to a lack of preparation because they have proved that they can score runs against all opposition. They have only had two warm up matches so it might take them some time to settle and, in a three match series, the first match is so important. Thier record at the Oval hasn’t been good but it is often the final Test venue and they have been battling with fatigue. This time it’s the first Test and that should be an advantage. My only question mark is they could be a bit undercooked."
"Personally I think it is a 50/50 call. The difference with this England side is that they are mentally a lot tougher. They are also physically in better condition and if you couple that with some of he skill levels that are on offer then it makes them formidable opponents. But you look at South Africa with that pace attack and the have some real match winners in the batting line-up so it will be an incredibly tight series."
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