By Shane Thomas
England have been a significant power at the top end of world cricket for long enough now to prove that it's no fluke. Fans can rub their eyes and realise they're not dreaming. After a generation of enduring mediocrity, and sometime worse, the phrase "English cricket" is no longer a national punchline.
England are officially the world's best side at the five-day format of the game - a reign that's lasted almost a year. They have just come off the back of playing five one-day matches against Australia. While Australia are currently ranked the planet's finest at the 50-over version of the sport, they took a pasting - England hammered them 4-0, and probably would have made it a whitewash had this unseasonable English summer not intervened.
But while all may currently be rosy in the English garden, there is a potential thorn on the horizon, in the form of South Africa. England have vanquished every major cricketing nation on their path to being the world's best. All but the Proteas. Like a video game that increases in difficulty with every level, it's apposite that the final team England have to beat are also their most problematic.
Last time South Africa visited these shores, they won their first series on English soil since 1968, leaving the home side shell-shocked and precipitating Michael Vaughan's resignation as England captain. The return series in 2009/10 ended in a 1-1 draw, with England twice snatching draws from the looming spectre of defeat. At the time of writing, England haven't beaten South Africa in a Test Series since 2004, while the men from the Rainbow Nation haven't been bested at this form of the game for six years.
But it's not only South Africa's formidable record that makes them such dangerous opposition. It's tough to remember a series where both sides were so evenly matched. If you were to make a composite XI from the two teams, you could spend a good few hours debating on which players to include. James Anderson and Dale Steyn are undoubtedly the world's two best fast bowlers, and equally strong cases could be made for whom is the superior.
As well as a match-winning strike bowler, both attacks posses a tall seamer whose bounce can prove tough for batsman to handle; for Stuart Broad, read Morne Morkel. At the top of the order, which left-handed opening batsman - and captain - will have the edge, Graeme Smith or Andrew Strauss? And while South Africa boast a fearsome middle-order in Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis (a man hailed by Kevin Pietersen as cricket's greatest ever player), England can counter this with the aforementioned Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott.
I wouldn't be surprised to see many of these mini-contests wind up as stalemates, leaving the difference to made elsewhere. While South Africa finally have an attacking spinner in Imran Tahir (yes, I know it's not the most South African name, but England are hardly in a position to moralise), who is an expert in getting out lower-order batsman cheaply, he's not in the class of England's Graeme Swann.
Swann remains the world's premier spin bowler. The only sticking point is a recurring elbow problem which could blunt the Nottinghamshire man's impact. If so, it's a damaging blow, as the balance of England's attack hinges on Swann being able to bowl for long spells, keeping the three seam bowlers sufficiently fresh.
And while both sides have four nominal bowlers, it wouldn't do to overlook the additional qualities that Kallis brings with the ball. He's such a classy batsman, that it's easy to forget that he has over 270 Test wickets. A genuine all-rounder, Kallis adds an extra dimension to the Proteas attack, that England's four-man bowling line-up - as good as they are - cannot match.
Also, lest we forget that in Vernon Philander - making his first tour of England - South Africa have one hell of a wild card. Don't underestimate his slight paunch, and unathletic amble up to the crease. His embryonic Test record is eye-popping. He has 51 Test wickets, coming at an average of under 15, and possessing a strike-rate of a wicket every 26.8 deliveries; all this after only 7 Test matches, no-one has ever made such an auspicious start to their bowling career. And unlike Steyn and Morkel, England are walking into the unknown when they face Philander in the 1st Test Match at The Oval.
But it's not all bad news. One area of potential weakness are the final batsman in the South African middle-order, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy. Both are fine wielders of the willow, but neither are world-class, and England's bowlers should be able to hone in on any signs of weakness. But in the midst of this analysis, it may turn out to be a wretched piece of fortune for South Africa that could be the pivotal moment.
In a warm-up match against Somerset, wicketkeeper Mark Boucher was hit in the eye by a bail, after Tahir bowled out one of the Somerset batsman. It was a freak occurrence, but Boucher suffered severe damage to his cornea, and was forced to retire from cricket. It was a desperately sad way for one of this generation's champion performers to leave the sport. But England must make the most of Boucher's absence.
AB De Villiers is expected to take the gloves in Boucher's stead. Pound-for-pound, De Villiers is arguably the best all-round cricketer in the game, but he is untested in keeping wicket at this level. It will be a herculean task to not let the pressures of standing behind the stumps affect his brilliance with the bat. If anyone can, it's probably De Villiers, but Boucher's injury has given England an opening. Once England get South Africa four wickets down, it brings De Villiers into the game, with Rudolph and Duminy next to come. And with a weaker lower order than England, the home side may only need four bowlers to take the requisite 20 wickets to win the matches in this 3-Test Series - which is nothing short of a disgrace of scheduling.
The eventual victors of the series will be ensconced at the top of the World Test rankings. The stakes are as high as they could be, which makes this series must-see for any fan of cricket. Personally I think the side who makes the least mistakes will end up triumphant. South Africa arrive with the stronger bowling attack, but that could be offset by England having home advantage. You can accuse me of sitting on the fence, but it's no accident that many find it tough to separate the two teams. And it's because of that, I predict a drawn series, with England to remain at Number 1 in the world.
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