Comment - South Africa Well Placed To Mount Assault On Top Spot
In his weekly column, Cricket World editor John Pennington looks forward to the upcoming England-South Africa series - which pits the top two Test sides in the world against each other.
The talking stops soon - today, in fact - and South Africa hit balls in anger as they begin their tour of England. Perhaps with England's recent success in Australia in mind, they play a pair of warm-up matches ahead of the opening Test on 19th July.
With the bulk of England's Test side still concerned with finishing off a struggling Australian side, there is a slight danger that it will be South Africa's players who will head into the series with better preparation behind.
The dismal weather might well have the final say, and limit both sides to practising indoors, rendering the above point redundant. Let’s hope not – the forecast is a little more hopeful beyond the end of this week.
Graeme Smith is back in familiar territory as South Africa prepare to take on Somerset. Back in 2005, he led the side to victory in the Twenty20 Cup. They've been trying to repeat the success since but despite appearing in three finals, haven’t managed to get over the line.
In his arrival press conference, he spoke about 'quiet confidence' in his side's ranks ahead of this series. Privately, the confidence might be a little louder than 'quiet' and with good reason.
The last time South Africa lost a series overseas was against Sri Lanka in 2006, when they came up against Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in record-breaking form.
Smith is himself recovering from an ankle injury and will be desperate to hit form early. In 2003, he scored twin double-centuries against Nasser Hussain's England and four years later, he scored a wonderful unbeaten 154 not out to win the Edgbaston Test as his side took a deserved 2-1 series win.
Hussain resigned as captain mid-series in 2003 and his successor, Michael Vaughan, also went the same way in 2008 as the runs continued to flow for Smith and the Proteas, Kevin Pietersen taking over the reins.
Andrew Strauss has subsequently led the side to the top of the Test rankings, although after England were beaten 3-0 by Pakistan, South Africa had a chance to depose them. It would not be stretching the boundaries of possibility too much to say that had weather not intervened in New Zealand, they would have swept that series 3-0 and done so.
Both Strauss and Smith are nearer the ends of their careers than the start and both have enviable records. Smith averages 72 in Tests in England, and Strauss averages 42 against the Proteas.
It has been 12 years since the home side won an England-South Africa Test series. England won 2-1 in the winter of 2004/5, largely thanks to the efforts of Strauss and the 2003 series, for all Smith's brilliance at the tender age of 22, was drawn 2-2.
The most recent clash saw England cling on at Centurion Park and in Cape Town and an innings win apiece in a 1-1 draw. Such fine margins have proved the difference between them and it is unlikely that either team will run away with it.
South Africa's players are on top of their game. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers are in the middle of golden runs with the bat, Alviro Petersen had adapted quickly to Test cricket and the experience of Jacques Rudolph has proved to be an invaluable asset in the middle-order. His knowledge of conditions having enjoyed a spell with Yorkshire must not also be underestimated.
This might prove to be Mark Boucher’s final tour but he remains as feisty a competitor as any and is the only survivor from the 1999/2000 series - along with Jacques Kallis, for many the greatest all-rounder in the game today and arguably the greatest since Sir Garry Sobers.
As if that wasn't enough, it has taken time but Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have developed into a fearsome new-ball partnership. Vernon Philander has benefited from time in county cricket and at home to learn his game and has made a phenomenal impact and Imran Tahir is the genuine attacking spin bowler South Africa have long been yearning for.
Make no mistake, England will have to fight for their coveted number one status.
Like it or not, there is a long history of links between South African and England players, from the time of Basil D'Oliveira, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith to present day. Strauss, Jonathan Trott, Matthew Prior, and Pietersen were all born in South Africa and others such as Craig Kieswetter and Jade Dernbach also have South African origins. Trott and Kieswetter played for South Africa Under-19s and Pietersen played against England for Kwa-Zulu Natal in 1999.
This has led to plenty of jokes about England being South Africa's 'B' team. One way to stop the jokes is for South Africa to beat England and sit on top of the Test rankings.
They stand as good a chance of doing it this year as they ever have.
© Cricket World 2012
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