The best eagerly awaited series of the last two years
One of England's most eagerly awaited Test series of recent times launches into action today. Even the weather, which has been so single-mindedly sogging the entire summer, seems to want to watch Strauss' England take on Smith's South Africa. At stake: the pinnacle of the Test match rankings, and, in this Jubilee summer, a piggyback on the Queen for the winning captain (subject to Her Majesty passing a fitness test on a troublesome back injury that dates back to Mike Gatting's days as England captain).
Admittedly most of this eager awaiting has been carried out by hardcore cricket fans. England's wider sporting attention has been engaged with (a) the imminent Olympics, (b) complaining about the imminent Olympics, and (c) counter-complaining about the amount of complaining about the imminent Olympics. And probably also by (d) nerve-jangling rumours of the potential transfer of a left-back, or maybe even a defensive midfielder, between two second-tier football clubs. Nevertheless, in the cricket-conscious parts of the country, anticipation has been building throughout the summer, which has thus far registered barely a tremor on the cricketing Richter scale.
I expect this eagerly awaited Test series to prove rather better than the last eagerly awaited Test series in England, way back in the murky depths of history, in 2011. That showdown ended up in an abject drubbing for India, who were ageing, weakened by a couple of crucial injuries, and riding the rogue grandmother of emotional come-downs after their World Cup high. England are unlikely to have such compliant opposition this time.
The key battlegrounds
1. Swing bowling
England's batting has been almost unremittingly exceptional since shortly after the start of the 2010-11 Ashes. It remitted fairly spectacularly in the face of some high-class tweakery against Pakistan in the UAE and in the first Test in Sri Lanka, but at home it has been historically dominant, crunching through records like a recently divorced crocodile through his ex-wife's CD collection.
What England's batting has not encountered in that time, however, is consistent top-quality swing bowling, since the naughtiness-besmirched 2010 series against Pakistan. Then, they collectively failed, but were bailed out by Pakistan counter-failing even more aggressively in the face of England's own excellent swing contingent. Steyn and Philander will test whether the weaknesses that Amir and Asif exposed before their little "judicial kerfuffle" have been properly rectified, or merely camouflaged.
2. Swing bowling
South Africa's batting contains four of the world's top ten batsmen. No other country has more than one player in the top ten. However, in the three matches they have lost in the past two years - each when leading 1-0 in a series - vulnerability to swing has been influential, as Welegedara, Cummins, Zaheer and Sreesanth all made decisive inroads into their top order. Anderson is now a significantly superior bowler to the one who performed reasonably against them in 2008 and 2009-10, Broad has taken 54 wickets at 18 in his last ten Tests, and Bresnan has only ever had one actively ineffective Test match with the ball.
3. Dale Steyn's body
It has been pointed out that Dale Steyn's otherwise unimpeachable Test career has one significant blip - his performances against England. He averages 34 in eight Tests against England, compared with an overall career average of 23. But three of those matches were in his raw debut series in 2004-05, one was on a Lord's featherbed in 2008, and one was his first match back after injury in 2009-10. In the other three matches (three of his most recent four against England), he has taken 20 wickets at an average of 22. England were thrashed in two of those games, and clung on by their fingertips in the other. If he remains fit and plays a complete series against England for the first time in four attempts, England will have to bat exceptionally well to win it.
4. Vernon Philander's ability to keep thinking he is bowling in the 19th century.
Fifty-one wickets at 14 in seven Tests. Those are scarcely believable statistics in 2012. Rumours suggest that Philander summons the ghost of George Lohmann through a fairground medium before each Test he plays. South Africa will be hoping that the long-dead 1890s Surrey-and-England phenomenon continues his advisory role as personal bowling coach for the Proteas' brilliant new blitztrundler.
5. Graeme Smith's cover drive
Smith is a very good batsman. Perhaps in time he will be judged to have been a great batsman. He has been an admirable leader, and seems to be a perfectly decent human being. But with bat in hand he is an aesthetic abomination. If he starts chunk-slamming England's bowlers through extra cover, the images burned into the England players' retinas could adversely affect the home team when their turn comes to bat.
Player to watch: Ravi Bopara
It is widely suggested that Bopara is drinking in the last chance saloon as a Test player. In the 1980s and 1990s, Last Chance Saloon was a bustling, crowded hangout, with almost the entire England team queuing up at the bar most of the time. Now, with the stability of central contracts, and with a distinct and, from a neutral perspective, disappointing lack of entertainingly whimsical selectors who liked to play to the crowd, Last Chance Saloon tends to be empty, closed for refurbishments, or have a solitary No. 6 batsman tapping nervously on the bar waiting to be served.
Bopara's Test performances to date have formed a curate's omelette of a career, in which he has managed to give the impression that he has squandered multiple opportunities, despite the fact that he has basically only had two spins at the roulette wheel of Test cricket. He failed as a 22-year-old in Sri Lanka, was dropped, then returned 18 months later to punish West Indies before failing again when batting too high against Australia. Since then, he has played only two Tests, against India, batting twice when England were so completely dominant that success or failure would have proved nothing. He scored 7 and 44 not out, proving nothing.
However, because he has been nearly in the Test team, as well as in and out of the one-day side ‒ and because most players in the modern England set-up stay in the team for years ‒ it seems that he must be close to exhausting his quota of opportunities. Perhaps he is, but there is no reason that he should be. He is 27, so this will be his first run in the Test team as a mature batsman. He should be judged as if he is making his debut. Strauss and Trott, 27 and 29 respectively on their debuts, were fortunate to have their youthful failures away from the elephantine memory of Test Match Statistics. Bopara's three ducks in Sri Lanka five years ago, and struggles in a less confident England team in 2009, are largely irrelevant. Perhaps he will succeed, perhaps he will fail. If he succeeds, he will give England the back-up bowling they have lacked since Flintoff retired and they plumped for a hitherto hugely successful four-prong bowling attack. If he fails, he might still become a better player when he is 29, or 31. He could be an English Hayden, Langer or Martyn. Whatever happens, he should be thrown out of Last Chance Saloon for being underage.
Two reasons why England will win
1. Their bowling is very good. 2. Their batting is very good.
Two reasons why South Africa will win
1. Their batting is very good. 2. Their bowling is very good.
Official Confectionery Stall Prediction
One-all. England's batting and/or bowling will win one Test. South Africa's batting and/or bowling will win another. The other will be a draw. Or a tie.
● Given that the two teams involved in this series were, until a recent rankings reshuffle, numbers 1 and 2 in the Test universe, and given also that two of the Tests are being played in the Olympic-slathered city of London, it seems appropriate for me to announce unilaterally of behalf of the IOC that the winners of this series will be considered the Confectionery Stall Olympic Cricket Champions.
This may, however, put added pressure on England, who are defending gold medal winners ‒ a badge of honour tattooed on the soul of every England cricket supporter. The Ashes may have come and gone, World Cups may have slipped through English fingers (some more slippily than others), but the Olympic gold medal has dangled gleamingly around this nation's cricketing neck since Queen Victoria was still complaining about being old, rather than complaining about being dead.
This landmark victory for English cricket was achieved with a convincing clouting of a France team whose predilection for standing facing the bowler and trying to flick the ball away before it struck them on the shins clearly stood them in bad stead. In a game of 12-a-side, England (or, more accurately, the Devon & Somerset Wanderers CC) thoroughly marmalised France by 158 runs, after the Flying Baguettes, as they were no doubt known, were skittled for 78 and 26, proving the unchanging cricketing truism that if your numbers 5, 7, 8 and 9 all bag pairs, you will probably struggle to win cricket matches.
The defeated French team cycled home with their strings of onions dangling sadly around their defeated necks, and the history of Olympic cricket was over. Nineteen hundred was the first and only time cricket appeared at the games. Not that it knew it at the time, as it was only retrospectively recognised as an Olympic contest 12 years later, by which time cricket had been consigned to the Olympic scrapheap, alongside other jettisoned sports from the early games, including mud wrestling, hide and seek (abandoned after the 1896 winner, Petronelli of Italy, had to be posthumously awarded the gold medal having been found dead on a library shelf, hidden by some large encyclopaedias, in April 1899), freestyle gurning, nose karate, strip poker, rhinodeo (a variant on traditional American rodeo, using a riled-up rhinoceros), puppy drowning, grape spitting, endurance stamping, Greco-Roman architecture, tantrum throwing, whisky downing, freestyle screaming, cow tipping, underarm squelchies, badonkaslam (in which contestants had to withstand a series of increasingly vigorous thwacks to their private parts without flinching), and croquet.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer