A new dawn has set over South Africa cricket and it finally seems to be in good hands, at least on paper with Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis at the helm. With 1,333 international matches between them, it is safe to assume that they know what it takes to compete at the highest level at a regular basis. What will be interesting to see is how all that knowledge is transferred to the current crop of players and how well it is utilised.
Just like their backroom staff, South Africa have a new-look Test squad as well, in which they have named as many as six uncapped players – including Rassie Van der Dussen, Rudi Second, Pieter Malan, Beuran Hendricks, Dane Paterson and Dwaine Pretorius.
South Africa have been in the news for weeks for the wrong reasons – be it the sponsors pulling out, ousting of CEO Thabang Moroe or the revocation of accreditations to a few journalists. The national team suffered a whitewash at the hands of India but now have a chance to bounce back in front of their own fans against a resurgent England side and finally put the focus back on cricket on the field, rather than off it.
With Smith at the helm – for however short time – and the appointment of a few of his trustworthy mates certainly enables the Proteas to do so.
Coming to the current squad, fast bowler Lungi Ngidi has not been named in the squad due to an injury, which kept him out of the MSL final too. However, the fast bowling department seems to be in the safe hands of Kagiso Rabada – who has 28 wickets at 17.39 in Centurion – and Vernon Philander, who is set to retire from international cricket at the end of the series.
Philander bows out
Without a shadow of a doubt, Philander will be a huge miss for South Africa. His pace may have dropped significantly, but it is his accurate lines and lengths that has fetched him a lot of success all over the world. In fact, nobody has a better bowling average than Philander this decade, among bowlers who have picked up at least 100 Test wickets.
South Africa might also retain Anrich Nortje and hand left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks a debut to add a bit of variation in the bowling department.
Fast bowlers are going to be key. At SuperSport Park, there is very little to absolutely nothing for the spinners. Out of the 138 wickets (Excluding run-outs) to fall at the venue since 2016, only 14 have gone to spinners, which makes it redundant to have one in your XI, but, both are expected to field one as they can spring in a surprise every now and then. Out of his 100 Test wickets, South Africa’s lead spinner, Keshav Maharaj, has just one scalp from his 40 overs at the venue.
In the absence of Aiden Markram, it was Quinton de Kock, who opened the innings for South Africa in their previous Test at Ranchi. With Markram’s return and his excellent record at home (1,318 runs at 48.81), de Kock may be batting lower down the order – at six or seven.
South Africa likely XI: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Zubayr Hamza, Faf du Plessis, Rassie van der Dussen, Quinton de Kock, Dwaine Pretorius, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje.
England have problems of their own, with three of their bowlers Jack Leach, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer recovering from flu. Joe Root has expressed concern, but in moments like these he will be delighted to have England’s leading wicket-taker James Anderson back in action, bowling as many as 30 overs in the two warm-up matches, while those unwell, failed to take field in any of those matches.
History is on England’s side as they have not lost a Test series in South Africa in the last two decades and if they play their cards well, they could very well walk away with yet another scalp.
Selection becomes a dilemma for England, but they have enough back-up, more so, with Dom Bess and Craig Overton called in as cover and in all likeliness, could feature in the XI. England were handed a reality check when they were thrashed by an innings and 65 runs in the first Test by New Zealand, but then bounced back well in the second Test at Hamilton to draw the game – Root’s 226 being the highlight – much to England’s relief.
By his high standards, Root has not had a particularly good 2019. His average of 36.85 this year is his lowest in a year since 2013.
However, he still remains England’s best middle-order batsman and will be one of the key factors in determining the outcome of this match and the series.
There ideally shouldn’t be any change in England’s top five. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley will open the batting, followed by Joe Denly, Joe Root and Ben Stokes. Stokes is also nursing a knee injury and England might take a late call on him. He also missed a training session with his father being critically ill, but will most probably play the game now that his dad is stable. With the return of Jos Buttler, Ollie Pope – who scored a valiant 75 at Hamilton - can play this Test as a batsman.
England is in a tricky situation for finalising the bowling attack. Anderson is a sure starter and in an ideal scenario, he should have Broad and Archer partnering him if they recover from flu. That leaves Woakes and Sam Curran out of the side unless they field an all-pace attack which is being contemplated on a helpful track in Centurion. Leach's fitness and form can make room for a debut for Matthew Parkinson who was expensive in the warm-up game. Dom Bess, who has played two Tests for England, has been called as a cover along with Craig Overton. Amidst all the muddle, the final unit will only be confirmed on the day of the match.
England likely XI: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope/Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, James Anderson.
There is prediction of rain on Day Two of the Test and it is expected to be cloudy for the remainder of the Test. We can expect swing bowlers like Anderson, Philander and others to make merry.