Let the battle for No. 1 commence
Thursday, July 19
Start time 1100 (1000 GMT)
This series could be all about cart-wheeling stumps, bonce-bothering bouncers and catches in the cordon, as the world's two best bowling attacks go head to head in conditions favourable to pace and swing. It could also be overshadowed by the weather and the Olympics, with its attendant bureaucratic bungling, amid grumbles about the inadequacies of a three-Test encounter. For now, we can savour the prospect of a potentially thrilling clash between the two best sides in Test cricket - even if the rankings would perversely deny the fact.
Despite the ICC's annual recalculation dropping South Africa to third, victory in the series would lift them above England to No. 1 - a position they last occupied, briefly, in 2009. Graeme Smith was the last touring captain to secure victory in England, going back to the historic series success of 2008, and South Africa are also unbeaten away from home since losing a two-Test rubber to Sri Lanka in 2006. With four batsmen - AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and Smith - in the top ten, they have a top-order on which to build a successful campaign; in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, the bowlers to torment England in a manner they are more used to dishing out.
South Africa's last two tours have resulted in the end of an England captain's tenure but, fortified by back-to-back Test hundreds against West Indies, Andrew Strauss will fancy his chances of ending the hoodoo. Under Strauss and Andy Flower, England have become ruthless bullies in their own conditions, winning seven home series in a row. The quicks are programmed to bowl an relentless line and length - something which South Africa's attack are still adjusting to here - and in Graeme Swann, England may hold the trump spin card. His fitness after a twinge in his troublesome right elbow, as well as The Oval's receptiveness to spin, could be a determining factor in the first Test.
Posturing aside, there will be a touch of sadness when the teams take the field, at the absence of Mark Boucher, who was set to reach 150 caps and more than 1,000 dismissals in international cricket during the series. Both teams have plenty of motivation but neither is confident enough to mutter "you guys are history" just yet.
England DWWWL (most recent first)
South Africa DWDWL
Watch out for
England's No. 6 is just about the only area of long-standing uncertainty in the side and, after Jonny Bairstow's difficult introduction to Test cricket against West Indies, Ravi Bopara has been given another chance to establish himself in the middle order. He enjoyed a successful ODI series against Australia and seems more comfortable about meriting his place, though he is often a slow starter and South Africa's bowlers won't give him any help in getting going.
AB de Villiers is one of South Africa's most accomplished batsmen but he will have to perform both in front of and behind the stumps, in the wake of Boucher's enforced retirement. De Villiers said he is looking forward to a rest whilst wearing the wicketkeeper's gloves, rather than running around at point, but there will be greater demands on his concentration, not to mention his back. His record as ODI keeper suggests he may be up to the challenge.
Pitch and conditions
This will be the first Test pitch produced by The Oval's new head groundsman, Lee Fortis. Spinners have often prospered here, though more often at the back end of the season, and given the damp summer thus far the surface could be lower and more seam friendly than before. The forecast is grey and rain-spattered, which will probably have both sets of bowlers sniffing around the toss.
After a month away from international cricket, Kevin Pietersen returns to the England fold, while Bopara finally gets his opportunity at No. 6 - barring a stubbed toe or ricked neck between now and 11am tomorrow. With Graham Onions nursing a tight hamstring, England's only decision is likely to be between Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn for the third fast bowler's spot.
England (possible) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Ravi Bopara, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
The shock departure of Boucher from the touring party aside, South Africa are a settled team. De Villiers is expected to take the gloves, with JP Duminy, who scored a century on his last outing, coming in to add depth to the batting as well as a back-up spin option. Alviro Petersen has recovered from a foot problem, so Jacques Rudolph remains at No. 6.
South Africa (possible) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 Jacques Rudolph, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
Stats and trivia
- South Africa have not won in 13 visits to The Oval, losing their last three
- This is the earliest an Oval Test has been held since 1983, when New Zealand began a four-match series in south London on July 14
- Andrew Strauss needs 70 runs to reach 7,000 in Tests and one century to equal the England record of 22, jointly held by Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoffrey Boycott
- Graeme Smith is set to play his 100th Test but it will only be his 99th for South Africa, as he captained the ICC World XI against Australia in 2005
"The rankings say we are number one but we've got to go out there and prove it."
Andrew Strauss, England's captain, is not resting on his laurels
"There's a real feeling of contentment and clarity. We're at the point where we want to be and just want this series to start now."
Graeme Smith, South Africa's captain, is keen to get going
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.