England have had a charmed summer to date but the real test starts next week at The Oval against South Africa. The prize at stake for the winner of the three match-series could be no greater; the victor will be awarded the Number One test ranking.
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The incumbent world leaders England will be desperate to retain their crown, and anticipation is particularly great ahead of the series because of the sheer one-sidedness of their matches thus far this summer.
The England West Indies test series was, as expected, one-way-traffic and the subsequent one-day games have been hampered by a combination of inclement conditions and the continued absence of any sense of competition.
The three test-series against South Africa, which also takes in Headingley and Lords, could also suffer because of the weather but it will not be undermined by imparity between the sides.
The only drawback is the paucity of matches.
Here are the key questions both teams face:
How will England’s solve the Number Six conundrum?
The Jonny Bairstow experiment may be curtailed; he averaged just 12.66 in his maiden series against the West Indies at Number 6 with a highest score of 18 and could make way for the mercurial Ravi Bopara (av. 34.56 in 12 tests).
The Essex man’s test career can be summed up by his double feat of three consecutive tons (at home against West Indies in 2009) and three consecutive ducks (in Sri Lanka in 2007). Bopara has excelled against Australia in the ODI series and deserves another chance.
The other alternative is to play five bowlers and promote Matt Prior (av. 42.31 from 55 tests) to Number Six. Given England’s wealth of seam-talent and the all-round abilities of Tim Bresnan (av. 40.22 from 14 tests) and Stuart Broad (av. 27.92 in 47 tests), this is an exciting alternative but Messrs Flower and Strauss are unlikely to change their winning formula.
Should Steven Finn be recalled to the pace attack?
Despite Bresnan’s 100% record at test-level and superlative performance in the second test against the Windies at Trent Bridge in which he was named man of the match, the third seam bowling spot is still undecided.
Steven Finn has been in stunning form in the ODI side and could add an extra dimension to team as his height offers something different to the attack. The attritional Bresnan has worked very well alongside opening bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Broad and the Yorkshireman is the favourite to get the nod but Finn’s chances cannot be discounted.
England have not won a home test series against their opponents for twelve years, and the management team may go for the extra aggression engendered by Finn’s height and bounce to silence that record.
Can Graeme Smith shine in England again?
The South African skipper has a phenomenal record on these shores, averaging 72 (test average 49.64 from 99 tests), and led his country to a famous triumph in their last tour of England in the summer of 2008 which saw Michael Vaughan resign as captain. It remains the last time the home side lost a home test series, and it was South Africa’s first series win in England since 1965.
Smith was also instrumental in the fall of Nasser Hussain mid-series in 2003; the Proteas opener hit two double centuries, including the highest test innings by a tourist at Lord’s. It is unlikely that the series will see the fall of his opposite number this time around but the South African left-hander will hope to lead from the front again after recovering from an ankle injury. Smith remains his side’s key wicket.
How far will Mark Boucher’s absence undermine South Africa’s chances?
The enforced retirement of the veteran wicketkeeper is sad news for world cricket. Boucher played 144 test matches and achieved the most test dismissals by a glove-man in history (555). The thirty-five year-old has also finished with an impressive batting average of 30.20, including 5 centuries and 35 fifties, and will be sorely missed.
AB de Villiers could provide cover but South Africa will be anxious not to over-burden their star batsman (av. 49.16 in 74 tests). They may summon specialist keeper Thami Tsolekile to join the tour. Such upheaval just ten days before a crucial tour is an inauspicious start but South Africa have not lost an away series for six years. This will be tight.
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