A Test series that cricket needs
In an age of hyperbole and a time of superlatives, it is gratifying to come across a sporting contest that requires neither sensationalism nor propaganda. The Test series between England and South Africa features six of the world's top 10 Test bowlers and eight of the top 17 Test batsmen. It will decide which team is ranked No 1 in the world. As Tony Blair so nearly said, now is not the time for soundbites, but the hand of history is upon our shoulders.
This is the series that world cricket required. At a time when the lure of the longest format has been compromised and questioned, the global game should rejoice at the sight of two fine sides contesting a meaningful series in front of packed houses. Cricket has many issues, of course, but this encounter should remind us all that, at its best, Test cricket remains as entertaining, as captivating and as rewarding as ever.
That it is squeezed in between ODI series and forced to fight for media space alongside the Olympics, The Open golf championship and a multitude of other sporting events tells you much about cricket's current challenges. This series deserves better. But, in a sport which has grown so used to compromises that it would pawn its soul if only a buyer could be found, it is telling that such a contest has been condensed and pushed to the margins.
Plenty of fine teams have toured England over the years. Sometimes, as was the case with West Indies and Australia for many years, they succeeded with dispiriting ease. But, arguably anyway, you have to go back to 2005 to find a time when an England team has taken on such good-quality opposition in such an open series. With skilful bowlers of all types, eye-catching batsmen, at least one great all-rounder and some of the toughest batsmen currently playing the game, spectators will not require cheerleaders, fireworks or music to enhance their enjoyment. This series is about cricket, not marketing.
The only problem with such a high-profile clash is that the result may be seen as all important. There is a bigger picture here, though, as the supporters of South Africa and England will understand. South Africa were barred from international competition from 1970 to 1991; England supporters became inured to embarrassment after some grim years in the 1980s and 90s. For both teams, these are golden days that many feared might never have returned. Win lose or draw over the coming few weeks, that is worth remembering.
That is not to say that the result does not matter. It matters plenty. While England may have been able to dismiss the reverse in the UAE as an aberration - they will have another opportunity to answer the questions about their ability in Asian conditions soon enough - their long-term hopes of creating a legacy by which other England sides will be judged may be fatally wounded if their proud home record is also tarnished. As things stand, they have won just one of their last three Test series. If that becomes one in four, any claims of supremacy will ring hollow. The rankings state they are No. 1; now is the time to prove their worth.
England do not, perhaps, have the flair of their South African rivals. But they make few mistakes. They are professional. They are well drilled, well led and able to prey on any weakness of their opponents. In England, at least, they also have an excellent record. They have won seven successive series and lost only two since 2001; one to India in 2007 and one to South Africa in 2008.
Led by the eminently calm and sensible Andrew Strauss, England have done nothing different in recent days. They always want to win. They always prepare professionally.
"There will be an extra bit of spice because it's the two best teams in the world," Andrew Strauss, England's captain, said. "But every series I've played against South Africa has always been keenly contested and I don't think this will be any different.
"It will be a good gauge for us. The rankings say we are No.1 and we have to go out and prove that now. It is going to be a stern challenge, but we always expect the opposition to be hard to overcome.
"We have had our normal preparations. Everything on the surface looks fine. Our preparation has been solid and now it's a case of moving from preparation mode to game mode."
England's only selection decision will be the decision over whether to pick Tim Bresnan or Steven Finn. Graham Onions, who has a minor hamstring strain, is most unlikely to be risked and did not train on Wednesday. Whoever they select, Strauss was quick to credit the attack as one of England's key strengths.
"I am very comfortable with our bowling attack," Strauss said. "It's a match for any side in the world. They have proved that continuously over the last three or four years.
"Their record speaks for itself. We haven't needed that fifth bowler while taking 20 wickets pretty much continuously over the last 24 months or so. In some ways Ravi Bopara coming into the side gives you opportunity for a fourth seamer although he's not an out-and-out bowler clearly. But our three seamers and Swanny have always done a good job for us."
England do have two potential weaknesses, though. The first is their catching which, in the slips and gully region, has been distinctly fallible over recent times. In a series which could be decided by small margins, that could prove crucial.
The other issue is the on-going distraction caused by the fall-out between Pietersen and the ECB. Omitted from England's World Twenty20 preliminary squad despite his insistence that he is available for all three formats - albeit it not on a permanent basis - there is legitimate concern that Pietersen's dissatisfaction could cause discomfort in a dressing room that has been stable and focused for several years.
But, while some of his team-mates are biting their tongues hard to avoid losing their tempers with Pietersen's vacillating moods, Strauss insisted that he had no concerns and said he remained hopeful that a compromise - a controversial word in itself in this situation - could be reached whereby Pietersen's return to all formats could be brokered.
"The conversations that Kevin has been having have been between himself, his representatives and the board," Strauss said. "The players haven't been involved, the management haven't been involved and that's the way we'd like it to remain. It hasn't been a distraction for us. It hasn't entered our thinking and that's enabled us to concentrate on preparing properly for this game. Kevin is determined to do well in this series. I haven't seen any signs in his preparations to suggest he is anyway distracted."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo