South Africa take aim at England's perch

Updated: 19 July 2012 09:13 IST

Only a year ago, England were preparing to topple India from the summit of Test cricket. Now, with India having plummeted to fifth in the rankings, England are ready to defend their Test crown against the latest challengers, South Africa. How quickly times change.

South Africa take aim at England's perch

Only a year ago, England were preparing to topple India from the summit of Test cricket. Now, with India having plummeted to fifth in the rankings, England are ready to defend their Test crown against the latest challengers, South Africa. How quickly times change.


India's current travails in the Test arena are another story altogether. But few would argue that the three-Test series starting at The Oval on Thursday between Andrew Strauss's side and Graeme Smith's South Africans is worthy of top billing in the world game.

South Africa are unbeaten in Test series overseas for six years, and that demonstrates that they are far from the bottlers they are often portrayed as in crunch games. England, meanwhile, have won their last seven Test series at home; the 3-0 away loss to Pakistan earlier this year being a freakish blot on an otherwise impressive record of recent years.

Strauss as good as admitted that this upcoming series is his team's greatest challenge yet to their superiority in the Test world. "South Africa are a very fine side and they'll be determined to knock us off our perch," said Strauss at The Oval, where rain meant South Africa had to practice indoors.

"There will be an extra bit of spice because it's the two best teams in the world but every series I've played against South Africa has always been very keenly contested and I don't think this will be any different.

"I'm certainly very excited about it and it will be a good gauge for us. The rankings say we are No. 1 and we have to go out and prove that now."

Much of the pre-series hype has centred on the two bowling groups. It is true that Dale Steyn and James Anderson spearhead their respective teams' attacks, but both teams are stuffed with talent.

The backup bowling of each team has depth and quality with Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan (who is expected to keep his place ahead of Steven Finn) and Graeme Swann so often match-winners. While Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Jacques Kallis and Imran Tahir, the legspinner, appear in no way inferior to England's lot. Philander and Tahir are the relative rookies of the line-up, along with Alviro Peterson, the opening batsman, but all three have played county cricket. That experience could be key with so much rain present.

Graeme Smith has also seen and done it in English conditions. Not only did he lead Somerset to the Twenty20 Cup in 2005, he has also clocked up the 'small' matter of 99 Test appearances and will play his 100th at The Oval.

Smith has left his mark on previous tours. He scored 259 and 277 on the 2003 tour when in his first year as skipper, while his unbeaten 154 in 2008 single-handedly steered South Africa to a brave victory at Edgbaston and gave them the series.

Smith, who has relinquished the captaincy in One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 Internationals, said his team is determined to snatch England's top ranking, while admitting that he is a reinvigorated character keen to keep churning out the runs and ticking off more wins.

"I've given up a bit of responsibility but I feel quite renewed in the job since Gary (Kirsten) and the current management team have taken over (in June 2011)," said Smith. "It's given me a new lease of life, the encouragement they have given me to carry on the job.

"I don't know how long I'll do it for but as long as I feel I can add value and the team wants me to be there. Nine, ten years is a long time, probably longer than anyone has coped with the pressures of international captaincy, which has been a challenge at times, but I've taken it in my stride and hopefully always bounced back.

"It's something I take as it comes. I've still got a goal to play international cricket for a period of time. I'm excited by what the next few years hold in the international game, whether I'll be captain all the time I don't know. That's something that will unfold in the next period of time."

While England's line-up is fairly predictable, with Finn an unfortunate twelfth man despite his recent exploits against Australia, South Africa are likely to play JP Duminy at No. 7 and use his occasional offspin with AB de Villiers keeping wickets after the freak eye injury to Mark Boucher, which curtailed his international career on the first day of the tour. The other member of England's squad of 13, Graham Onions, the medium pacer, was doubtful after suffering a hamstring strain and not being able to take part in England practice session on Wednesday.

Teams:
England (from): Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior (wk), Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Steven Finn.

South Africa (probable): Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wk), Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir.



Topics : Cricket England South Africa Andrew Strauss
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