The most awaited Test series of recent times gets underway this Thursday at the Oval. After all, there is much more at stake than just the coveted Basil D’Olivera trophy. This series between the two evenly matched outfits will decide who is the world champion of Test cricket, at least for the current season. South Africa won a historic series the last time they visited England, and four years later, they are still not the top dogs of Test cricket, in spite of being undefeated in away series since 2006.
First and foremost, the powers-that-be should be criticised for foregoing the traditional 4 Test series between the two nations, reducing the contest by a Test. Whereas in actuality, a series of this stature totally deserves a 5 Test rubber. However, as much as we would like to think that 3 Tests will not do justice to the high profile series, let us remember that these two teams, the top two in world cricket, are most likely to dish out a memorable showing; the number of Tests notwithstanding.
England’s near-invincibility at home for a long time now, coupled with South Africa’s outstanding recent away record, make this series all the more looked-forward to. England have won seven consecutive home series since the 2008 loss to South Africa, and they have been near-impossible to beat in testing home conditions. India, who came visiting last season will certainly vouch for that. The upcoming Test series has been billed as the battle between the bowlers, and why not – both have top quality pace attacks, with promising bench strength as well. James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn will be up against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Plus two entertaining spin bowlers in Greame Swann and the county-hardened Imran Tahir. Now, isn’t that mouthwatering?
Recent Basil D’Oliveira trophies have been toughly contested. the last series, played in South Africa in 2009-10 ended 1-1, but the two draws were nail-biters, with England escaping defeat on both occasions. Greame Smith’s epic series-clinching 154 at Edgbaston in 2008 is still fresh in memory. Smith is set to become the most capped captain in Test cricket, and he is back to where he really relishes playing — as a young captain in 2003 , he showed the world his leadership and potential, scoring two big double hundreds as the series ended in a thrilling 2-2 deadlock.
While on paper, England have a slightly better batting line-up in English conditions, let us not forget that they will up against the deadliest pace trio in the world – the dangerously consistent Steyn, the tall Morkel, and the revelation of last season, the wonderfully accurate Philander, who will certainly relish the conditions on offer. South Africa lost their most trusted warrior, the superbly dedicated Mark Boucher, to a freak eye injury in a tour match; but South Africa are not a team to be mentally dislodged. The flamboyant A.B de Villiers is expected to be behind the stumps, come the Oval Test.
Another comon aspect of the two sides besides the quality pace attacks, is the number of world class Test batsmen in the teams. If England have Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, skipper Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell; then South Africa have Hashim Amla, Greame Smith and the evergreen Jacques Kallis. Add to that the flair of Kevin Pietersen and de Villiers respectively, and a heady contest is on the cards. Does not matter that three of the England top five have South African origins.
Fans around the world will be hoping for a closely-fought, epic series between the two best teams in the world. While a England victory will extend their domination, a South African win will get them to the top of the tree, a position which they have deserved quite often of late, but have never quite done justice to their outstanding resources. Many will say another drawn series will be a fair result. Let us sit back and await the commencement of the Test Championship duel, the Battle Royale of this season. Let the games begin!