11 July 2012

England Better Than Ever But The Proteas Will Provide A Tough Test

England came within one day of good Birmingham weather from possibly being the first ever nation to be world number one in the Test match, One Day International and Twenty-twenty international rankings simultaneously. However their performances in the recent ODI series against Australia were excellent as they brushed aside their great rivals 4-0.

The series had a strange feel to it as England and Australia met outside of an Ashes summer and it wasn't in an international tournament. Despite this there was a typical competitive edge to the series as England went into the first match knowing that they had to white-wash their opponents to take their world number one spot. They had the perfect start as they cruised through the opening two games in impressive fashion winning by 15 runs and 6 wickets respectively. The home side's top order was in great shape with 80s for Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan while Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott were also in the runs. The four quick bowlers were in full flow with plenty of pace, precision and patience. With one of the world's best spinners in Graeme Swann also in the side everything seemed to be falling into place. 

With optimism of a 5-0 win rising those hopes were sent sinking when the rains came at Edgbaston. Nevertheless England did not let this disappointment slow them down in the last two matches and they produced two more ruthless displays to take a great 4-0 series victory. The last two wins were even more convincing as they won by eight and then seven wickets with more runs for the top order and wickets galore for the quick men, including 4-37 in the fourth ODI for Steven Finn. Journeyman Kent spinner James Tredwell filled in admirably for an injured Graeme Swann in the last match. 

The one thing that did let Captain Cook's men down was their catching as they put down six chances in the last two games. However this is a new, more ruthless England than we have seen for a long time and they will be sure to come back to their Test series against South Africa with their fielding right up to scratch. There will be one big difference to the one-day series England have just played, and that is the opposition. Three Test matches against the world number two South Africa is a completely different proposition to five ODIs against an Australia side in transition. 

England's Test team are also in great shape however, and will be looking forward to welcoming captain Andrew Strauss and inspiring batsman Kevin Pietersen back into the international scene. There will be a selection dilemma over who plays in the number six batting slot with Jonny Bairstow, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan all holding realistic hopes of claiming the place. Bopara appears favourite after an impressive one-day series and is also a useful option with the ball. England also have a battalion of fast bowlers and the fact that players of the calibre of Steven Finn and Graham Onions are unlikely to feature shows how strong their attack is. 

South Africa may not have the strength in depth that Andy Flower's side do but there are so many world-class players that feature in their line-up. The likes of captain Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers and of course the legendary Jacques Kallis form a formidable top order. Alviro Peterson is also a decent player and will fight it out for a batting spot with JP Duminy and Jacques Rudolph. Add the world's best bowler in Dayle Steyn and tall fast man Morne Morkel and they have a fearsome line-up which is enhanced even further by the arrival of leg-spinner Imran Tahir. 

England have a massive task if they are to hold on to their title as the best Test team in the world and this will be a titanic battle. The Proteas will put up an excellent fight and are more than suited for English conditions. Vernon Philander has been a surprisingly successful addition to the side and his style of tight swing bowling should thrive on grounds like Lord's and Headingly. For all the positives there is a wicket-keeper sized hole in their side after Mark Boucher's alarming retirement. The 35-year-old was struck in the eye by a bail in a tour game against Somerset and suffered a career-ending injury. 

A freak accident but a frightening one that reminds everyone associated with the game how dangerous it can be, especially when playing without a helmet. Boucher finished with over 5,000 Test match runs and the record amount of dismissals in 147 matches. The only South African with more caps is the country's highest ever run-scorer, Jacques Kallis. The wicket-keeper said that he was 'as prepared for this series as any other' and that 'he had not anticipated retiring now'. A cruel blow for Gary Kirsten's side and 31-year-old Thami Tsolekile, a player with 144 less Test appearances than Boucher, will have big boots to fill. 

Despite the lack of the feisty South African legend this is sure to be a thrilling series as the world's best two sides go head-to-head. Maybe the worst aspect of this upcoming match-up is the fact that there will only be three Tests. The last time these two met was in South Africa in 2009 when England took a 1-1 draw thanks to the match-saving heroics of Onions, a man who will be waiting in the wings this time around. England will be quietly confident of an eighth successive home series win; their last defeat on home soil was to South Africa back in 2008. Two sides with plenty of history, but now on the top of their game, are hoping to give cricket fans all around the world a gripping end to the cricketing summer.