South Africa have named six uncapped players in their 17-man squad for the first two Tests of a 4-Test Series against England which begins at Supersport Park Centurion on Boxing Day.
This is a period of transition for South African cricket. Their great fast bowlers Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn have retired from Test cricket since the last time the teams met in 2015-16 and exciting quick bowler Lungi Ngidi tore a hamstring warming up for the T20 Mzansi Super League semi-final last Friday.
Yes, England have only won two overseas series in the last seven years, but they are likely to welcome back record wicket-taker Jimmy Anderson from the calf injury which allowed him to bowl just four overs in the Ashes during the summer. Skipper Joe Root and Chris Silverwood must decide whether the Lancastrian – who has been at a two-week training camp in South Africa for the last fortnight – is ready for a return to the rigours of Test cricket. Note Anderson’s first spell against a South African Invitational XI on Wednesday went for 30 off just six overs.
Jofra Archer – as long as he is over the illness which prevented him bowling against in their first warm up match – will surely find the pace, bounce and movement of the South African wickets more to his liking than in New Zealand recently when he picked up just two wickets at an average of 104.5 albeit in just a two Test series.
The last Test played at Centurion was against Pakistan last December which the Proteas won by six wickets inside three-days despite skipper Faf Du Plessis bagging a pair. Duanne Olivier took 11 wickets in the match for the hosts, but the bowler turned his back on an international career earlier in the year when he signed a three-year deal for Yorkshire via the Kolpak ruling.
Thus, unless the weather intervenes you would be surprised if the 1st Test finishes in a draw and England get a confident vote at 11/10 to take a 1-0 lead. Note the Proteas are 6/4 to win the Boxing Day Test with the draw at 9/2.
Newly-crowned SPOTY Ben Stokes is 6/1 to be England’s top runscorer and you may remember the England all-rounder, arguably, came of age as a Test batsman in South Africa when he scored a magnificent 258 at Newlands Cape Town on the last tour in January 2016.
Joe Root returned to his very best form with his double hundred in the 2nd Test against New Zealand in Hamilton earlier in the month and the skipper is 5/2 favourite to be leading runscorer. Stokes will bat five at Centurion and he gets the vote.
There is no Hashim Amla or AB de Villiers in the South African batting line-up and, at the time of writing, it is not sure who will open the batting for the hosts alongside Dean Elgar. with Pieter Malan a possible debutant although Aidem Markram will surely play if proving his fitness. The elegant Markram has not played since punching a wall and fracturing a wrist after he was out for a pair in Pune in the 2nd Test against India back in October!
Much is expected and needed from skipper Faf Du Plessis with the bat and he is a worthy favourite at 3/1 but – if he gets the nod in the middle order – I believe Rassie van der Dussen might be overpriced at 5s on his Test debut. I thought van der Dussen batted well against Pakistan in a 50-over series I watched earlier in the year and in the ODI World Cup during the summer, but he is certainly not just an ODI dasher and he gets the vote.
England’s bowlers will certainly find conditions more helpful at Centurion than was the case in New Zealand. England owe South Africa one having failed to turn up in the Rugby World Cup Final in Yokohama last month and I take Joe Root’s side to take a one-nil lead in the Boxing Day Test.