Battered South Africa take on equal opponent
England have arrived in South Africa and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the slightly unedifying sound of wise men climbing onto the fence. This has partly to do with the fact that these teams are so evenly matched, the stats for weight, reach and career knockouts being pretty much identical. Beneath this, disguised but present, seethe the juicy waters of dislike. Cricketing equals, emotionally these teams are hemispheres apart. South African sport takes place in a pre-ironic age. It inclines to dourness, with occasional humour but no wit. Contrast this with England's cricketers: they are more verbally adroit but can be snide. World views are likely to collide.
The situation is coloured by the fact that these cricketing cultures are so tightly coiled. The South Africans who have played cricket for England often come from the former colonies of the Cape and Natal. Allan Lamb, Craig Kieswetter and Jonathan Trott were all Cape boys; the Smith brothers, Robin and Chris, were from Durban. The flawed maestro Kevin Pietersen hails from Pietermaritzburg. A still-beautiful colonial town now Africanised, it was until recently the last outpost of the British Empire. Many clues to Pietersen's insecure brilliance lie here, amidst the faded bandstands and spaza shops, where England play the second game of their tour as they prepare for the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead. Indeed, Pietersen's slightly bombastic striving owes much to his provincial background. Neither African nor English, he had more than most to prove.
Now England are here without him and are apparently better off for it. This is the most English England of recent years and the most African South Africa, particularly if Temba Bavuma bats at six at Kingsmead. Kagiso Rabada is unlikely to play, given Kyle Abbott's form in the fourth Test against India, but if he does, Cricket South Africa will at least have pleased Fikile Mbalula, the populist comedian better known as the minister of sport.
Elsewhere in the domestic system, racial quotas are wreaking havoc with the balance and happiness of the six franchise sides. In a recent T20 qualifier, Dolphins, from KwaZulu-Natal and the team for whom Pietersen starred for half a season with excellent results, had to leave Ryan McLaren, Robbie Frylinck and Vaughn van Jaarsveld on the bench. Under Gary Kirsten, McLaren was winning ODIs for the Proteas three seasons ago. Now he can't get a game for his franchise and was, in fact, loaned out to Knights at the beginning of the season before returning to Durban.
Insecurity is, of course, much on everyone's mind here in South Africa because the side is going through a prolonged changing of the guard. The passing of the baton perhaps accounts for the muted response to the Test defeat in India. It was a messy tour, difficult to make definitive sense of from afar. South Africa lost tosses, were blighted by injuries, but looked unsettled, and perhaps revealingly, someone like Hashim Amla, with a sound and much-used technique against spin, on occasion looked lost. The man is entitled to a bad series, though he doesn't appear to be coping with the demands of captaincy particularly well.
On the other hand, South Africa could easily have been beaten 4-0, a result that would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. In a more cut-throat environment like that of Australia, Mickey Arthur became the scapegoat for exactly this type of loss in India. Here the authorities tend to be more forgiving, partly because they haven't been smart enough to think about a successor to coach Russell Domingo and his back-up staff, partly because they genuinely believe South Africa can beat Alastair Cook's men.
Should South Africa lose the series it will mirror exactly the trajectory of Ray Jennings in 2004-05, when he lost a truncated tour in India then breathed a sigh of relief on hitting home shores. "We wanted to take AB [de Villiers] and Dale [Steyn] to India, and looking back on it, didn't have the courage to call them up," Jennings told me recently.
The two duly made their debuts in the first Test against England, at St George's Park. Steyn bowled 16 no-balls in the first innings and South Africa, having chosen the wrong side, lost. They fought back to square the series at Newlands, only to be hung and quartered in a mad two sessions in the fourth Test, at the Wanderers, Matthew Hoggard bowling the spell of a lifetime and Marcus Trescothick setting it up with a barnstorming "seize-the-day" hundred.
Those who seek the comfort of history might suggest that we have been here before. South Africa are similarly vulnerable, unsure of their best side. England - post-Pietersen - are similarly bullish. Sooner or later, though, players like Stiaan van Zyl, Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis will fire because they are fine cricketers and they understand that the fans' and the selectors patience is running out. The scene is set, the stage large. It's going to be a wonderful series.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg