Battle of the bowlers set to commence
James Anderson v Dale Steyn
A glance at the statistics might convince you there is no comparison here: while Steyn, rated as the No. 1 bowler in Test cricket at present, possesses the best strike-rate for any bowler with more than 250 Test wickets (he takes a wicket every 40.9 balls, on average), Anderson's Test bowling average remains above 30 and his strike-rate is 57.2. They have different styles, too. As Anderson put it, Steyn is "probably more aggressive, a bit quicker, he swings the ball late, probably a bit more attacking whereas my role is a holding job at times."
Yet, they also have much in common. Each will lead the attack for their side. Each will swing the new ball conventionally and reverse swing the old ball and each will pose huge problems for the opposition's top order.
Steyn is the quicker by some distance, but Anderson's skills, though more subtle, are no less dangerous. He has excellent control, he has the ability to seam and swing the ball both ways, and he has become adept at working to plans and exploiting batsmen's weaknesses. Over the last few years, Anderson's bowling Test average has dropped swiftly: up until the end of 2007, it was 39.20, but since then it is 27.28. He is currently rated No. 3 in the Test bowling rankings.
There is history here, too. At Leeds in 2008, Steyn gave Anderson a fearful barrage and hit him on the helmet with one bouncer. Anderson responded, unlikely though it sounds, by breaking Steyn's thumb with a fierce return drive. How each batting line-up deals with the challenge of Anderson and Steyn may go a long way to shaping the series.
Graeme Swann v Imran Tahir
On the face of it, Swann looks to have a clear advantage in the battle of the spinners. Despite being just three days older than Tahir, Swann has played 37 more Tests and has an excellent record in pretty much all conditions. He is rated No. 8 in the Test rankings and has helped revive the dying art of conventional off-spin. Swann's versatility is key for England. Even on pitches offering him little, he has the discipline and control to allow his captain to rest and rotate the seamers. His record against left-handers is exceptional.
Tahir's Test record looks modest. He has played only seven Tests and has yet to excel. While he his blessed with all the variations a leg-spin bowler requires, there are some doubts about his patience and ability to fulfil a containing role when required. His experience in English conditions should help, though. He has represented four counties and, as a first-class strike-rate of 47.5 shows, has a fine record as an attacking spin bowler. Given some help from the pitches - something he has not enjoyed so far in his Test career - he could prove a dangerous bowler for an England side with a chequered record of playing good-quality spin. If England can get after him, however, it will be interesting to see how Smith handles the situation.
Andrew Strauss v Graeme Smith
Two experienced men who, as opening batsmen, lead from the front but also face their own struggles with the bat. Smith's record in England is superb - he averages 72.20 in Tests here - and, as captain, he has already inflicted series defeats that played a part in the demise of two England captains, Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain. The Oval Test will be his 100th - his 99th for South Africa plus the ICC World XI Test in 2005 - and, while neither he nor Strauss are known for their tactical genius, they both offer leadership, stability and composure under pressure. Strauss will, injury permitting, play his 100th Test at Lord's.
Both have faced significant personal troubles with the bat though. Smith can struggle with his balance and, as a result, can be susceptible to the swinging ball early in his innings, while Strauss has recently returned to form after a long barren run that was beginning to threaten his place. How each of them weather the substantial challenges their opponents' new ball attacks will throw at them will not just ease the burden on the middle order, but may also have an impact on the morale of the respective dressing rooms.
Ravi Bopara v Jacques Rudolph
Bopara and Rudolph both impressed early in their Test careers, but then suffered setbacks and have waited a long time for their second opportunity. It may also prove that neither have too long to cement their positions. Bopara, who scored three successive centuries in his fourth, fifth and sixth Tests, has been on the edge of the England side for 18 months only for injury to intervene. Now, on the back of several encouraging performances in limited-overs cricket and having remained one of the class performers in the county game, he has another chance to revive a Test career that was almost destroyed in the Ashes of 2009. Now he has the chance to answer all the lingering questions about his talent and temperament. While not in the same class of bowler as Kallis, Bopara is also an underrated bowler who will ease the burden on England's seamers.
Rudolph, meanwhile, returned to the South Africa side in November after five years developing his game in county cricket. Despite making a double-century on Test debut in 2003, questions remain about his ability to deal with the short ball, the moving ball and his concentration. He has only once passed 52 in his eight Tests since returning to Test cricket.
AB de Villiers the batsman v AB de Villiers the 'keeper
It seems that for at least the first Test, de Villiers will face double the workload. He is set to bat at No. 5 and wear the wicket-keeping gloves. With a history of back problems, he has already started preventative physiotherapy to stop anything before it starts, but knows he will have to be extra careful. He has already done the job in ODIs and Twenty20s, including in the IPL, and it has aided rather than inhibited his batting. Doing it for prolonged periods of time, as he will have to in a Test match, is a different matter.
There is some fear that de Villiers will not be able to maintain his form in a crucial position in the line-up, something he hinted at himself just over two years ago when he said his main goal was to be the world's best batsman and that could mean abandoning ambitions of being a wicketkeeper as well. This time, he has no choice. With Mark Boucher's enforced retirement and team management against rushing the specialist Thami Tsolekile into the starting XI, de Villiers will have twin responsibilities and how he manages them could be series-defining for South Africa.
Vernon Philander v expectation
Being up against it is nothing new to Philander. He was expected him to bomb out in his Test debut, he responded with 5 for 15 against Australia. He was expected to toil without success at the Wanderers, he responded with another five-wicket haul. He was expected to fizzle out against Sri Lanka but two more five-fors came and when he was expected to make less of an impact in New Zealand, he become the fastest bowler to 50 Test wickets in over a hundred years. Now, Philander is again thought to have a point to prove, this time against the world's No. 1 ranked Test side and in conditions he has only known briefly. He isn't fazed by the new challenge and insists that if he sticks to his line outside off and is able to make use of movement, the rest will come. Obviously.
Slip cordon v slip cordon
James Anderson said that a brilliant one-handed catch may be what decides the series. Jacques Kallis was more general and said "key moments" would separate the teams. The margins could well be in the slips, where England have let a few through and South Africa have been known to hang on. England put down three catches in the third Test against West Indies and have been questioned for the lapses in that department. South Africa's trio usually consists of Graeme Smith, Kallis and de Villiers, but with de Villiers likely to take the gloves, Jacques Rudolph will probably move into third slip. It will mean a change from the norm but with Mile Young conducting the fielding drills, it is unlikely to mean any drop in the usual standards.
Pietersen v Kallis
The bowling attacks have dominated pre-series hype but for bowlers to achieve success, batsmen have to fail. Therefore whoever manages not to may well have the deciding say in the contest. Pietersen and Kallis are totally different batsmen, in approach, technique and mindset, but both are key to their sides' chances. South Africa have identified Pietersen as the man to get out early not because he is capable of scoring bit runs but because he is able to do that quickly, which could throw the bowlers off their plans. Nothing fires him up like playing against the country of his birth and Pietersen will want to make a statement against them, again. Kallis has been South Africa's immovable pillar for more than 15 years but his record in England leaves something to be desired. On what is likely his last visit to the country, he will want to leave having made an impact in the only way he knows how - with the bat.