England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval July 18, 2012

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sharky on July 21, 2012, 10:57 GMT

    I can't agree more with the title of this article " A Test series that cricket needs ". This is really a special series, so please, don't let the transfer-critics let us concentrate on the irrelevant stuff. I'm glad Tahir married a South African and stayed and worked long enough in South Africa to qualify to play for them. Zaffers should never point out that KP or Strauss could have played for them or even that they had a part in building a South African society. Because you closed doors on them. Everybody knew for years that England had a British Empire and that they spot talent all over the commonwealth countries. The players were never forced to go to England and they all arrived out of their own will (turning their backs on their previous country). Mentioning that KP could have qualified for South Africa is like bragging about your mistakes. Not a winner's way. Right, now back to the cricket.

  • Pan on July 19, 2012, 15:01 GMT

    @Munkeymomo: No, don't worry, I haven't forgotten that they lost 3-0 to Pakistan. How many other series have they lost in their last 12?

    @CDUP, That's true that England weren't exactly going places around 2007/early 2008. Just goes to show what a job Flower, etc have done (I'm not English, by the way, I'm Belgian, but I do genuinely believe they are the best team in the world right now).

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2012, 12:54 GMT

    aj.sa11, you talk about KP and Trott as if they were part of the apartheid movement. Apartheid was a terrible crime against humanity but what are they meant to do? sacrifice a test match career because of some notion of 'fairness' in payment for a crime they were not part of? Both have dual parentage so it was their parents who made the choice for them to grow up in SA and go through their formative years in the SA system, not them. You mention DeVilliers, Steyn, Morkel and the rest. How many of them have a British parent? Do you honestly think any professional sportsman would have made a different choice in the same circumstance as KP or Trott. On the flip side of the coin, would you have advocated refusing Strauss or Prior the chance to play for SA if they had decided to move to SA?

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2012, 12:21 GMT

    nice artile..............

  • Sean on July 19, 2012, 11:45 GMT

    I must admit i love reading the anti-England squad comments, racking their brains for a possible reason why England should'nt be Number 1, all because they would rather talk about anything other than their OWN countries ranking.

    England was thwarted by rain against the "green & yellow" ...otherwise England would have completed the hat-trick of Best in test, 50 over & T20....and if your honest with yourself, England is the A-team and i pity the fool who doesnt recognise.

  • John on July 19, 2012, 10:33 GMT

    @perl57 on (July 18 2012, 21:09 PM GMT) And re the Bell incident - Bell went on to score about 20 or so more runs so it hardly made a difference. Had India not backed down then they would have been in for hostilities from the crowds for the rest of the tour as that would have been an extremely cheap bit of gamesmanship (at best)Also we DREW with SL who are 6th placed in the world closer to team India in 5TH than WI and NZ below.

  • Keith on July 19, 2012, 10:05 GMT

    Goodness, keep hearing about these supposed 'horrible' English conditions as a reason why England are so good. I might point out that these same conditions didn't stop the great West Indian side of the 70's and 80's and the last great Australian side of the 90's from regularly winning in England. Maybe the opposition just aren't as good as they used to be, whilst England are much better? As for away form - okay England were soundly beaten in the tests against Pakistan (but note did turn it around big time in the ODI's) in UAE, but short memories from the Aussies about the recent trouncing by England in Australia just 18 months ago (or has that one been conveniently forgotten!!). Now if you really want to discuss a side who only like playing in their own 'horrible' conditions and who regularly get trounced whenever they travel away - I give you.....India!!!! (LOL)

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2012, 10:03 GMT

    @ bantersaurus - my sentiments entirely mate!!

  • Dummy4 on July 19, 2012, 9:58 GMT

    It is really interesting reading all the comments about this test series (short one though it is!). Of course I would like England to firmly cement its no 1 position (at least playing in a non-Asian environment) by beating SA but I have admired SA for many years and there are strengths there that could be the undoing of England. However I feel that if we play to our full potential, especially in the field, we have a good chance. Whatever the outcome anyone having the opportunity to watch should enjoy some good cricket. I wish both teams well.

  • John on July 19, 2012, 9:40 GMT

    The fact of the matter is that England playing at home wil get the advatage, but if the weather stays good South Africa are potentially superior. I notice also that the article had to get into teh top 20 of batsmen to ensure enough English names. If it was topo 10 only then SA come out tops in every aspect. Hopefully they will do so in the matcvhes as well, although I expect the crappy English weather will dominate.

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