South Africa in England 2012 July 17, 2012

SA our toughest challenge - Anderson

South Africa represent the toughest test of England's credentials as the No. 1 ranked Test side, according to James Anderson. However, Anderson insisted that, while in the past England may have allowed the pressure of such a high-profile series to affect their performance, they now had the weapons and the confidence to overcome the tourists.

While some may question Anderson's short-term memory - England were tested pretty thoroughly in the UAE and failed to find the correct answers - there is some truth in his words. England have won seven Test series in a row at home, with South Africa the last side to defeat them, in 2008. Whatever their problems in Asia or the Middle East, England remain a formidable side in their own conditions.

"We've been playing really well at home, but this is going to be our toughest challenge for a while," Anderson said. "But we are still confident going into it. We think we have the necessary weapons to be able to beat them. That's the way we go into most series; thinking we are going to win.

"There's not going to be time to ease into the series. We're going to have to be on top of our game from the first minute. It's going to be an intense few weeks and it's good that they're not going to be back to back Tests, as it's going to be really hard cricket. It's two of the best teams in the world. They are a strong team, they have played well in England before, we lost the last series here to them so it will be really interesting.

"In the past, maybe, the pressure might have got to me in particular, maybe a few other guys. But now it's more exciting. You want to play in big games. You want to test yourself against the best in the world, which is going to happen in this next few weeks.

"Essentially my job is the same as it has been for the last 12, 18, 24 months. I have to go out there and set the tone, take the first over and try and bowl as accurately as I can for long periods of time. There might be a bit of added pressure because it's a bigger test for us. And there might be more patience needed as they are renown for being resilient and for soaking up pressure better than most other countries. So we realise that and it's exciting more than anything as you're testing yourself against the best in the world. They have four batsmen in the top 10 in the world and it's really exciting as a bowler to be able to challenge yourself against batsmen like that."

England have one selection issue to resolve. The identity of the third seamer remains unclear, with Steven Finn, in particular, pressing hard for inclusion ahead of Tim Bresnan. If Bresnan is fully fit - and it is open to debate whether he has ever recovered full pace since undergoing elbow surgery in early December - then his superior batting will ensure his selection. If Bresnan is unable to hit the bat as hard as he used to in net sessions over the next 24 hours, however, Finn may yet still play. It is a strong side that can afford to omit such a fast bowler.

Bresnan is one of three England players to receive injections in recent days. He has had a saline injection in his elbow, Matt Prior had a similar injection in both Achilles tendons and Graeme Swann had a cortisone injection in his elbow. All three are expected to be fit, though their treatment does underline the sense that the demands on this England squad are overly onerous. These players cannot be patched up indefinitely.

The one other area that England might have concerns is their catching. Both in recent Tests and ODIs they have squandered a worrying number of chances in the slips, at gully and at point. It is, arguably, an area in which they have been weak since the departure of Paul Collingwood and, in a tight contest and against a daunting batting line-up, they know they cannot afford to reprieve the likes of Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis or AB de Villiers.

"It happens like that sometimes," Anderson said. "You go through stages of dropping catches, there's no science behind it. We practice as hard as ever and go into the match confident of being able to catch the ball. We realise that a spectacular one-handed catch might be a huge partnership breaker and a match-turning thing, so we practise really hard for those situations and hopefully we can hold on to the ball this week."

Anderson dismissed the idea that speculation over Kevin Pietersen's future would distract England. Pietersen, who indicated last week that he would be prepared to retract his limited-overs retirement if a compromise could be reached over his international schedule, may well remain the focus of discussion outside the dressing room but, in it at least, the issue will not be discussed.

"Now we've met up as a Test side, we're going to concentrate completely on it and get ready for first thing on Thursday," Anderson said. "There's often headlines around players - some more than others - so that comes with the job. Like I said, that's left outside our little bubble in the dressing room. We just talk about what we're going to do on Thursday."

The Pietersen issue will continue to fester, though. Not only are England set to name their 30-man preliminary squad for the World Twenty20 on Wednesday - a squad in which Pietersen will be noticeable by his absence - but because there is an outside possibility that this could be his last Test series.

That remains an unlikely scenario. While Pietersen has requested permission to play a whole season of IPL in 2013 - a request that is certain to be refused - that does not mean he will decline the offer of a central contract this autumn. His desire to play Test cricket, and the Ashes in particular, remains strong. Pietersen, it should be noted, has just set up his own cricket school. Presumably it will be a school with long holidays.

It is also worth reflecting on the source of recent leaks about Pietersen and their purpose: at the end of last week Pietersen was emerging as a more sympathetic figure; a highly-talented player who was keen to spend more time with his family and prolong his career through periods of rest. Now, after the suggestion that his real intention was simply to play more IPL, much of the sympathy for Pietersen has evaporated.

In that light, Anderson's comments about the ECB's handling of the situation were intriguing.

"The ECB have been very good at handling a lot of situations," Anderson said. "They've got much better in the last few years at handling certain situations. They've handled it brilliantly at the minute and I'm sure they'll continue to do that and I'll leave them to do that.

"Generally when Kevin is making the headlines he tends to play very well. So hopefully he'll continue the form he's shown this summer and get us some big runs we'll need in the middle order."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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