England v South Africa, 1st Test, The Oval July 17, 2012

Little to choose in summit clash

In a top-of-the-table contest between two well-matched all-round teams, England's stronger lower-order batting gives them a slight edge going into the first Test

Both teams fall short of greatness
During their outstanding run between 1999 and 2007, Australia established their supremacy over all Test-playing teams home and away. Twice, they won 16 consecutive Tests in a row and lost just three series in the same period. However, since the middle of 2008, Australia's dominance waned and England and South Africa have battled for the top spot. England, who have won the last two Ashes series convincingly, last lost a home series in 2008 (against South Africa) and boast a win-loss ratio of 4.75 in home Tests since May 2008. Their record in away series in the same period has not quite been up to the same standard. Although they managed to draw the series in Sri Lanka, they lost to both India and Pakistan. South Africa, who briefly displaced Australia at the top of the Test rankings in 2009, have since struggled to force series wins. They drew home series against both England and India (2009 and 2010) and played out a draw in the series against Pakistan in the UAE. Despite being the two best teams in recent years, both England and South Africa are yet to display the all-round consistency that was a hallmark of the dominant Australian team.

Australia's success was built on a solid batting line-up and a brilliant bowling attack. The variety and experience in the bowling allowed them to dominate and win on almost all surfaces. Between August 1999 and August 2008, Australia won a remarkable 76 Tests out of 103 Tests and suffered only 12 losses (win-loss ratio of 6.33). Their aggressive brand of cricket meant that the draw percentage in the matches they were involved in was just 15%. Of the 33 series they played, Australia won 28 and lost just three. Following the retirements of a number of top players, Australia failed to dominate and lost series to England (2009 and 2011) and South Africa (2008-09). Since May 2008, England have been exceptional at home (19 wins and four losses) but less convincing in away matches (seven wins and eight losses). South Africa have a lower win-loss ratio (1.77) than England but have been the better team in away matches. However, the visitors, who can rise to the top of the Test rankings with a series win, will be confident of their success given that they were the last team to win a series in England (in 2008).

Records of top-ranked teams (since 1999)
Team Period Matches Wins Losses Draws W/L ratio Series (Wins/Losses/Draws)
Australia Aug 1999-Aug 2008 103 76 12 15 6.33 28/3/2
South Africa May 2008 onwards 34 16 9 9 1.77 6/1/5
England May 2008 onwards 53 26 12 15 2.16 10/4/2

South Africa marginally ahead in head-to-head clashes
After their readmission, South Africa played their first Test against England in 1994 at Lord's and went on to win by 356 runs. The series, however, ended in a draw after Devon Malcolm's 9 for 57 at The Oval helped England win by eight wickets. Overall, the head-to-head results are marginally in favour of South Africa (11-10) and the teams are locked at 6-6 in Tests in England. In their last series in England, South Africa won 2-1 with Graeme Smith scoring a superb 154 to set up the five-wicket win in Edgbaston. South Africa dominated the home series in 2009-10 but England held on to draws with one wicket remaining in the first and third Tests. In the two Tests that yielded results (Durban and Johannesburg), England and South Africa went on to complete convincing innings victories.

Of the six Test wins for South Africa in England, three have come at Lord's and two at Leeds. On the other hand, England have won three of their six home Tests against South Africa at The Oval. South Africa have won three and lost two of the eight series played between the two teams since South Africa's readmission but neither team, however, has gone on to win two successive series.

England v South Africa (since South Africa's readmission)
Matches England (wins) South Africa (wins) Draws W/L ratio (England)
Overall (since 1994) 36 10 11 15 0.90
1994-1999 16 3 4 9 0.75
2000 onwards 20 7 7 6 1.00
In England 17 6 6 5 1.00
In South Africa 19 4 5 10 0.80

Evenly-matched with bat and ball
Since May 2008, England and South Africa have been the most consistent teams in Tests. Following their loss to South Africa at home in 2008, England have remained undefeated at home. Their batting in home Tests in the period has been top class (average of 41.66) with the batsmen notching up 107 fifty-plus scores in 30 Tests. On the bowling front too, England have been highly dominant in home Tests and have picked up four more wickets (per match) than the opposition on average. The average difference (difference between batting and bowling averages) of 12.72 is the highest among all teams in home Tests in the same period. South Africa have a slightly lower batting average at home (37.41) and hence a lower average difference (9.37). However, the figures for fifty-plus scores per match (3.41) and wickets-difference (4.41) are almost on par with those for England.

South Africa, who have not lost a single series (home or away) since the defeat to Australia in early 2009, are well ahead of England on the batting front in away/neutral Tests. While South Africa have a batting average of 45.03, England have a corresponding figure of 38.12. Though England have the marginally better bowling average, the average difference for South Africa (10.27) is much higher than England's. In the same period (since May 2008), South Africa also have a higher value of fifty-plus scores per match (3.88) and wickets difference per match (2.17) than England. Overall (home and away), both teams are evenly balanced on the batting and bowling fronts and there is very little to choose between the two teams in the last four years.

* away matches include away and neutral Tests

Batting and bowling stats of teams since May 2008
Team Matches Bat avg/Bowl avg Avg diff 100/50 50+/match Wickets (oppn) Wickets (team) Wickets diff/match
England (home) 30 41.66/28.94 12.72 34/73 3.56 517 386 4.36
SA (home) 17 37.41/28.04 9.37 24/34 3.41 313 238 4.41
England (away) 23 38.12/33.90 4.22 30/53 3.60 368 326 1.82
SA (away) 17 45.03/34.76 10.27 28/38 3.88 265 228 2.17
England (overall) 53 40.04/31.00 8.96 64/126 3.58 885 712 3.26
SA (overall) 34 41.14/31.12 10.02 52/72 3.64 578 466 3.29

England boosted by lower-order batting
One of the major reasons for England's success has been their powerful batting line-up. Not only do they have an experienced opening pair, they also have an exceptionally strong middle and lower order. The depth in the batting was evident in the home series against India last year as Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan bailed England out of trouble more than once and turned the complexion of the match around with their aggressive batting. Except for their struggles against Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman in the 3-0 series loss against Pakistan in the UAE, nearly all England batsmen have performed consistently against pace and spin. South Africa, unlike England, have not had a settled opening pair but nonetheless have maintained an equally good average at the top of the order. The presence of Jonathan Trott and Hashim Amla at No.3 provides the necessary stability to the middle order of both teams.

Jacques Kallis, who has the highest average at No.4 (4000-plus runs), averages less than 30 in England and will be keen to turn around his fortunes on what could be his final Test tour of England. Since the beginning of 2010, he has been in top form scoring ten centuries in 19 Tests. Kevin Pietersen, England's No.4, had an excellent run in the home series against India and rounded off the series in Sri Lanka with a match-winning 151 off 165 balls. Ian Bell, who scored nearly 1000 runs in 2011 (average 118.75), has had an ordinary run this year with an average of just 32.36 in eight Tests. On the other hand, AB de Villiers, South Africa's No.5 batsman, averages over 75 in the four Tests played in 2012. Between No.7 and No.11, England have seven centuries and 21 fifties. In contrast, South Africa have managed 13 fifties in the lower order (No.7 to 11). This difference in quality in the lower-order batting could prove crucial in a series where the two teams are otherwise very closely matched.

*excludes Bangladesh and Zimbabwe Tests

Batting stats for teams by batting position since Jan 2008 (against major Test teams) *
Batting position England (Average/SR) England (100/50) SA (average, SR) SA (100/50)
1-2 44.53/47.68 20/36 44.05/53.57 16/20
3 39.33/48.48 10/10 52.54/53.65 9/18
4 47.46/57.38 14/8 53.92/52.54 11/15
5 40.22/50.99 7/18 63.82/53.05 12/9
6 36.91/54.08 7/13 45.64/48.43 4/13
7 37.54/57.08 5/14 26.53/45.50 0/7
8-11 19.63/55.72 2/7 16.98/44.13 0/6

Settled opening pair gives hosts advantage
During England's successful run in the last three years, Cook and Strauss became England's most prolific batting pair. Strauss, who had failed to score a century since the Brisbane Test in 2010, added two to his tally in the recent home series against West Indies. Cook has also forged excellent partnerships with Pietersen (average 74.62) and Trott (69.58). His association with Pietersen has been extremely prolific and has yielded eight century stands and six half-century partnerships in 27 innings.

Smith, who is set to overtake Allan Border for the record of most matches as captain, has scored over 1000 runs in England with four centuries in nine matches. He scored consecutive double-centuries on the 2003 tour and added two more hundreds in the 2008 series which South Africa won. Smith and Amla average 64.48 with seven century stands in 36 innings. Kallis and de Villiers, however, have been the most consistent pair for South Africa since 2008. In 27 innings, they have aggregated over 2000 runs with nine century partnerships.

Top partnership pairs for both teams (since Jan 2008)
Pair Innings Runs Average 100/50
Alastair Cook/Andrew Strauss 89 3840 44.13 13/13
Alastair Cook/Jonathan Trott 26 1670 69.58 6/2
Alastair Cook/Kevin Pietersen 27 1791 74.62 8/6
Kevin Pietersen/Ian Bell 23 1714 74.52 6/3
Hashim Amla/Graeme Smith 36 2257 64.48 7/7
Hashim Amla/Jacques Kallis 35 1739 51.14 4/7
Jacques Kallis/AB de Villiers 27 2067 82.68 9/4

Swann's variety crucial
The most interesting plot in the series is likely to be the contest between the top two pace attacks in Tests. By virtue of maintaining a stunning strike rate of 40.9, Dale Steyn has already established himself as one of the game's greats. Steyn has, however, played just two Tests in England averaging 36.25. In sharp contrast to his overall average of 23.18, his average of 34.89 in eight Tests against England is the highest against a particular opponent. Against right-handers, Steyn's average (19.65) and strike rate (36.37) are top-class. However, the corresponding figures against left-handers are much higher (29.21 and 54.37 respectively). Vernon Philander had a dream start to his Test career becoming the second-fastest bowler to reach the 50-wicket mark (in seven Tests). As a consequence, his stats against both right and left-handers are outstanding. Morne Morkel, who picked up 15 wickets on the last tour of England, has fairly similar numbers against both right and left-handers. While Cook and Strauss have been dismissed six times each by Morkel in 12 innings, Kallis has had his problems against Anderson falling four times in 11 innings.

Since 2010, James Anderson has transformed himself into a more complete bowler and averages 24.08 as compared to a much higher career average of 30.05. In the same phase, he has been even more lethal in home Tests averaging just 22.08 with three five-wicket hauls in 14 Tests. While Anderson has been equally successful against right and left-handers, his new-ball partner Stuart Broad has found life difficult against left-handers. His average of 40.10 against left-handers is nearly 15 more than his corresponding number against right-handers. In a series that features two potent pace attacks, it could be Graeme Swann's spin that makes the difference in the end. Swann, who is second behind Derek Underwood on the list of England spinners with the most five-fors, has proved to be far more dangerous against left-handers. But given that the South African batting line-up features very few left-handed batsmen, Swann will have a major challenge ahead.

Bowlers against right and left-handers (since Jan 2008)
Bowler Right-hander (wickets) Right-hander (Avg/SR) Left-Hander (wickets) Left-hander (Avg/SR)
Dale Steyn 140 19.65/36.37 56 29.21/54.37
Morne Morkel 84 30.23/52.98 52 29.28/57.03
Vernon Philander 36 14.91/28.33 15 12.33/23.06
James Anderson 130 28.03/55.06 75 26.00/56.62
Stuart Broad 113 25.83/53.75 47 40.10/75.19
Graeme Swann 95 37.14/68.46 93 19.82/46.77

For the first time in 29 years and only the fourth time ever, The Oval is set to host the first Test of a series (excluding one-off Test series). Since 2000, among venues where they have played at least ten Tests, England have the third-highest win-loss ratio at The Oval (3.50) after Old Trafford (6.00) and Lord's (4.66). In Tests played since 2005, Headingley has not had a single draw while seven out of 16 matches at Lord's have ended in draws.

While the first-innings averages at Lord's and The Oval are high (43.75 and 43.19), the corresponding figure is much lower in Headingley (31.44). However, the batting average is the highest in the second innings in Headingley (38.95) followed by Lord's (38.78). The average falls to 29.08 and 20.23 in the third and fourth innings in Headingley Tests. In contrast, batting in the last two innings at the other two venues has been much easier. In Lord's Tests since 2005, pace bowlers have picked up more than three times as many wickets as spinners have and also have a better average. The difference is not as pronounced at The Oval; spinners have picked up 66 wickets at 35.34 while pace bowlers have 148 wickets at 35.65. Spinners have struggled for impact in Tests in Headingley. In five Tests played there since 2005, they have managed only 17 wickets at 49.05 while pace bowlers have 139 wickets at 29.39.

Venue stats (since Jan 2005) - average in each match innings
Venue Matches Draw % 1st inns 2nd inns 3rd inns 4th inns Pace (wkts,avg) Spin (wkts,avg)
The Oval 7 28.57 43.19 32.85 34.05 41.03 148, 35.65 66, 35.34
Headingley 5 0.00 31.44 38.95 29.08 20.23 139, 29.39 17, 49.05
Lord's 16 43.75 38.78 29.79 37.46 35.49 368, 35.14 114, 38.40

Madhusudhan Ramakrishnan is a sub-editor (stats) at ESPNcricinfo