Bopara's wait is almost over
Ravi Bopara's return to England's Test team will be confirmed on Sunday when he is slotted in for the No. 6 role against South Africa. He will be the one significant change from the team which took on West Indies earlier this season by replacing Jonny Bairstow in the middle order.
Bopara's form in the ODI series against Australia, where he scored 182 runs and claimed four useful wickets, confirmed he is primed for a return to the Test side after a frustrating period where injuries have curtailed his opportunities. He was set to make a comeback in Sri Lanka after Eoin Morgan was dropped but picked up a side strain which prevented him from bowling and so Samit Patel was preferred over him. Then, at the start of this season, he injured his thigh which ruled him out of the series against West Indies.
That opened the door for Yorkshire's Bairstow, but he struggled in the three Tests and made just 38 runs and has not had a huge amount of batting since. He returned to Championship action this week and collected a first-ball duck against Hampshire.
The other area of debate for the selectors will be who takes the role of third fast bowler behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad. England's new-ball pair missed the last Test against West Indies when they were both rested but will return to spearhead the attack for the main event of the season.
In the first two Tests against West Indies they were accompanied by Tim Bresnan who was Man of the Match at Trent Bridge after a destructive spell of reverse swing on the third evening sealed the series for England. He currently has a Test bowling average of 26.09 (alongside his batting figure of 40.22) and will be tough to dislodge, but Steven Finn's performances in the recent one-day matches have made a very strong case.
In the four completed matches against Australia, Finn took eight wickets at 19.37 including 4 for 37 at Chester-le-Street. He played the final Test against West Indies when Broad and Anderson were rested but was out-bowled on that occasion by Graham Onions who is the other fast bowler in contention. However, it may be that Onions does not even find a place in this squad such are England's resources.
There are a couple of lingering injury concerns with Bresnan and Graeme Swann having both recently been rested due to elbow problems. Swann missed the last two ODIs against Australia, and did not play for Nottinghamshire against Middlesex, while Bresnan has not played since the fourth ODI at Chester-le-Street.
Earlier this week Andy Flower said: "Swann and Bresnan have ongoing elbow problems. Our medical staff believe they will be fit and available for selection for the first Test but it's a strenuous exercise being a bowler playing international cricket.
"They play all three forms of the game so that's why Swann missed a big part of the one-day series and why we rested Bresnan for the last match at Old Trafford."
The impact of an injury to Swann is one area where this England side have yet to be tested. His absence would leave a vast hole to fill as he provides both attacking and defensive skills, which have been key to England being able to employ a four-man attack with such success.
Should cover - or even a replacement - be needed at any stage it would probably come from either Monty Panesar or James Tredwell instead of any of the young spinners in county cricket such as Danny Briggs, Scott Borthwick or Simon Kerrigan who are still some way short of Test quality.
Panesar made a successful return against Pakistan in the UAE earlier this year, but did himself no favours with a poor fielding display at Galle and Tredwell, who took 2 for 23 in the last ODI against Australia, may well be the preferred option. This, though, is not the series where England want to test that theory.
Probable squad Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Steven Finn
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo