Saturday, July 21, 2012

England vs South Africa - The Batsmen To Watch

The series between England and South Africa that starts at the Kia Oval on Thursday, is the most eagerly awaited, non-Ashes series I can remember for quite a spell. And well it might be, for it pits the world’s best test team, England lest we forget, against the team ranked third. Further, it brings forth a battle between what are widely considered the best two bowling attacks in world cricket. The juices are flowing alright! 
England take on South Africa in this three match series having made light work of their summer warm-up act, the West Indies, beating them 2-0 in a three match series. The final match at Edgbaston was all but rained off, otherwise it would almost certainly have been a clean sweep.
Having also beaten Australia 4-0 in an ODI series this summer, England will be in buoyant mood right now, although South Africa will provide a much stiffer challenge than either of those two managed. 

With a bowling attack led by the imperious Dale Steyn, the world's best bowler, who is backed up superbly by the improved Morne Morkell, Vernon Philander, who performed so well for Somerset earlier this season and not forgetting the leg breaks of Hampshire old boy, Imran Tahir, South Africa have an attack that will give England's batting order a rigorous examination.

Meanwhile England's well oiled bowling machine, which barring injury will almost certainly be, as usual, Anderson, Broad, Bresnan and Swann, will also be up for the challenge that South Africa's batsmen will bring. 

But what of the batsmen? Who are the men to watch with willow in hand? Who have the most to prove going into this mouth-watering series, the winners of which will claim the number one spot in the rankings? 

Graeme Smith, the great warrior, will fight to the end, and as usual in series between these two sides will be the main man that England's bowlers look to target. Smith has endured a tough twelve months since South Africa's poor displays in the 2011 World Cup led to the Proteas captain to consider his position in the side. Smith is back to his best now, scoring well against New Zealand in the spring, but in Anderson and Swann, Smith will be up against two of the best bowlers to left handers in the game today.

Jacques Kallis, a rare specimen of all-round excellence with a test batting average of 56 including a phenomenal 42 centuries, will surely be a massive scalp if and when his wicket falls during the series. Bizarrely though, Kallis has a poor record in the UK averaging just 28 in test matches here. England might just fancy their chances against him then, in what may be his last tour on these shores perhaps?

AB de Villiers will be another South African batsman to watch, and I am particularly excited to see him in full flow. Capable of free-flowing, swash-buckling scoring in the mould of England's Kevin Pietersen, it will be interesting to see how AB copes with the additional responsibility that keeping wicket will bring, following the unfortunate eye injury to Mark Boucher ruled the veteran wicketkeeper out of the rest of the series and bought about his premature retirement. De Villiers is one of the Protea's best players, and the team will hope that the additional pressure of keeping wicket doesn't affect his batting. 

Whilst De Villiers takes over the gloves from Boucher, for the first match  of the series at least,  JP Duminy will take Boucher's place in the batting line up. Duminy's test average of 34 is decent if unspectacular, but the 28 year old batsman from Cape Town is beginning to show his pedigree in this format. A century in his last test in March against the Black Caps was his second ton in 13 matches for his country and against England, he will be hoping to enhance his reputation further.

England have batting sub- plots of their own of course, and as usual most of them centre around their charismatic batsman, Kevin Pietersen.

Following his retirement from limited overs international cricket last month, KP has since intimated that perhaps he didn't mean it after all. Whatever KP's current stance on the matter, or that of his employers for that matter, this series is set up intriguingly for him. He's up against the country of his birth which always adds spice to these encounters, and on top of that, KP will be out to prove to the ECB and all his doubters that he's still the best batsman England have got, and that could ensure there are fireworks every time KP takes to the crease.

Slightly away from the limelight, but nevertheless still a splendid batsman waiting to fulfil his potential, Ravi Bopara returns to England's test squad having impressed against Australia in the ODI's. Injury earlier in the summer lead to Jonny Bairstow deputise for Bopara against the West Indies, and whilst the experience for Bairstow was a good one, even if his own form perhaps faltered as he struggled in particular with the short ball, Bopara was always the intended number six this summer.

Bopara has long been earmarked as the successor to Paul Collingwood for England, but has failed to capitalise on an impressive start to his international career. He scored three hundreds on the tour of the West Indies in 2009, but has struggled since, leading to the likes of Eoin Morgan and Bairstow being auditioned for the role instead. In 2012 he has shown that he can bat at international level, can he now transfer that promise and ability to the test arena?

England captain Andrew Strauss is another batsman who will be keen to show everyone that he's still got it. The Middlesex man went into this summer under pressure after a tough winter on tour in the sub-continent (he wasn't alone). Sure, a classy ton at Lords against the West Indies got the monkey off his back, but Strauss will be keen to continue with contributions against the classy South African attack. 

His successor in waiting, Alastair Cook, has continued to impress leading the One Day side, who have won their last 10 matches under his guidance now, so Strauss knows that he needs to deliver, or the doubters will circle over him once more.

The final batsman to look out for in this series isn't actually a 'batsman' at all, but it is his batting that might just keep him in the team. Tim Bresnan's batting prowess means he is favoured in the side over the likes of Steven Finn. Batting at eight, he lengthens England's middle order whilst providing solid support with the ball. 

Let's be fair, Bressie lad is more than just a stop-gap bowler who can bat a bit, clearly. But with Finn in such fine form in the ODI side, and with Bopara and his medium pacers seemingly in the side for the first test, perhaps Bresnan will be sacrificed for the faster and more explosive bowling of Finn? 

It would be a gamble for the selectors to take this approach, and one that is unnecessary before a ball is bowled in this series in my view, but if England lose at the Oval and need to chase the series a little, perhaps Bresnan will be sacrificed?

It's set up to be a really remarkable series, the winner taking the top test side in the world title; it's like a heavyweight boxing unification fight. May the best team win - we're in for a cracker!

Tom Huelin for DieHard Cricket Fans
Follow Tom on Twitter @tomhue1

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