The most anticipated Test series of the year starts on Thursday at The Oval. There’s plenty to talk about in the build-up, and ANT SIMS looks at some of the key battles we can expect.
There’s nothing like the anticipation of a Test series to bring the clichés tumbling out in overdrive, and all things considered, the current hype means Thursday will probably be a damp anti-climax. Still, once play gets underway, there should be some intriguing mini-battles to look forward to – struggles that might in the end be more important than the overall results, and make each session more interesting than the series as a whole.
Here are our top four wars to watch.
Graeme Smith vs. James Anderson
Graeme Smith’s record in England is gargantuan: his average is 72.20 in the nine matches he has played there. The South African skipper loves scoring big, statement knocks in England, but the opposition will know that he is under pressure to perform, and they know that his wicket early on could make all the difference. Remove the head and the body will soon follow, as has often been the case with South Africa.
Smith has developed an apparent weakness against right-arm pace. Whether it’s all in his head – a deluded weakness, because he bats at the top of the order, and right-arm pace is the most common denominator for teams’ opening bowlers – or whether it is an actual weakness, will remain to be seen.
Jimmy Anders will be the key in England's attack, though, and he will most certainly target Smith. Anderson's record in England is impressive: he's picked up 173 of his 267 Test wickets on home soil, and if the conditions are overcast, he can exploit them, becoming one of England's biggest threats.
Dale Steyn vs. Kevin Pietersen
Over the weekend, Steyn spoke about life as a fast bowler and how he, like so many other bowlers, changes face when he steps over the boundary rope and onto the field. The most memorable quote from Steyn is, perhaps, that he’s in the business of taking wickets and, to do that, he wants “to scare the shit” out of people.
Steyn has the ability to come across as completely and utterly consumed by his carnal instincts and he embodies what everybody wants a fast bowler to be, even though he doesn’t entirely look it.
Pietersen, on the other hand, is a pompous ass on the field. He always has been, and it’s one of the things which makes him such a joy to watch and what makes him such a great competitor. Steyn and KP are arguably the two most competitive players out of each team, and when two players with such an insatiable desire for success come face to face, there are bound to be fireworks.
Morne Morkel vs. himself
When Morne Morkel is on form, he can be one of the best bowlers in the world. He can hit seams so perfectly that it could all pass as being done by CGI. But when Morkel is down on confidence, he’s his own worst enemy. One poor delivery has the ability to send Morkel spiralling into a pit of self-destruction. Once the bad switch flicks on, it’s nearly impossible for him to get back up and stay on track. His second against England is nothing to scoff at, though. The lanky paceman has picked up 34 wickets against them, 15 of those coming in England during the tour of 2008. His consistency problem disappeared briefly towards the end of 2010, but started to resurface again towards the end of last year, and Morkel will have to be careful toeing that fine line between making mistakes and becoming a Steve Harmison disaster.
Cricket vs. the weather
The weather in London is looking more and more like a Cape Town winter. The forecast for most of the first Test is looking rather glum, with rain predicted for day two, four and five. While weather should never be glanced at too far in advance, things look similar for the remainder of the series.
With a series of this calibre, it will be testing not just for the fans, but also for the players. South Africa have just dropped down to number three in the ICC Test rankings and they need a series win in order to pip England to the top. If the series is drawn, they’ll remain at number three and if England manage a win, they’ll drop down to fourth.
Rain will change the approach of Tests completely, and while the Saffas insist that the number one ranking is secondary to their quest, it will be in the back of their minds. There’s no doubt that they want to walk away from England soil with a victory under their belt, so the rain could very well spoil the party. DM
Photo: England's James Anderson (L) hands the ball to team mate Stuart Broad during the third cricket test match against South Africa at Newlands in Cape Town January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Philip Brown