Arthur excited by pace battery
South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, believes his side holds the edge going into Thursday's keenly anticipated first Test at Lord's, both in terms of the battery of quick bowlers at their disposal, and the solidity that comes from their recent run of six series wins out of seven. England may be on the verge of naming the same side for a record sixth match in a row, but in Arthur's opinion, without Andrew Flintoff in their ranks, they are some way short of a full-strength line-up.
"England are probably where we were a year ago," said Arthur. "They aren't quite as settled as we are at the moment, but they are a very good team, and incredibly hard to beat at home. Against New Zealand, they were very good and very steady, and did a good job as a unit, but what they did lack was the genuine pace of a Flintoff, Steve Harmison, or even a Simon Jones."
If Arthur sounded as though he was damning England with faint praise, then it was entirely intentional. With a pace-dominated line-up, spearheaded by Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the indefatigable Makhaya Ntini, South Africa know they have the weapons to inflict some serious dents on England's reputation. And there's no better place to start the barrage than at Lord's - a venue where England have been routed in all three contests since South Africa's readmission.
On the field, South Africa have promised to take a buttoned-lip approach to the contest, especially where Graeme Smith's lingering feud with Kevin Pietersen is concerned, but from the sidelines, Arthur wasn't afraid to take a few well-aimed pot-shots. He fully expects Flintoff to return to the side for the second Test at Headingley on July 18, which means that England's internal battle for selection could bubble to the surface during the Lord's Test.
In particular, Arthur singled out Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood - who managed a grand total of 77 runs in eight innings against New Zealand - as two batsmen scrapping for a solitary place. "The 'Freddie' Flintoff factor lingers over England, because he's too good a player not to be picked," said Arthur. "If you've got a class performer, a fantastic cricketer like him available to you, I think you'd be silly not to select him.
"He's got to come back, and he's got to come back for somebody unlucky. Within the whole pressure cooker of Test cricket, there might be one or two little personal contests going on in the England side. If we can get into 5 and 6 when the ball is pretty new, that'll be good, and there's also going to be one bowler with a cloud over him, knowing that Flintoff will be back for the second Test match."
That bowler, regardless of the superb impression he has made since coming into the team at Wellington in March, could well be Stuart Broad, who batted with incredible poise in the home series against New Zealand to average 39.66 from No. 8, but managed only seven wickets in six innings, less than half the tally of either James Anderson (19) or Ryan Sidebottom (17). But if Broad was anxious about his role in the side he certainly didn't show it, as he backed England's bowlers to play to their strengths in the coming weeks, and avoid getting drawn into a speed-gun war.
"I don't think we need to meet their pace and bounce at all," said Broad. "We need to stick to what we've done well in the past four or five Tests. We have two world-class swing bowlers up front, and we bowled New Zealand out four times in five Tests, so we don't need to chase to be someone we're not. All of us are above 85mph which is useful, but we look to do things with the ball. We're not going to charge in and try bowl 90mph, because that would send our techniques and radar awry."
That's not an issue that concerns South Africa's quick bowlers, however. Morkel, with his 6'6" frame, bowls with a splice-rattling pace reminiscent of Steve Harmison in his pomp, and at Uxbridge against Middlesex over the weekend, he put the finishing touches to his preparation for Lord's. "When everything is feeling 100% and my rhythm is nice, I'll definitely be trying to crank it up," he said. "The ball is coming out quite nicely and it's nice to see the batsmen jumping around a bit. Come Thursday, it will be the England batsmen who are in my sights. I can't wait."
The rich promise of both Morkel and Steyn fills Arthur with optimism for the future of South African cricket. With a combined age of 46, he fully expects them to be ranked as Nos. 1 and 2 in the world within two years, and in fact, Steyn, with 78 Test wickets in the last calendar year, is already regarded as the best fast bowler in the world. However, it is the overall shape of South Africa's attack that has earned them the favourite's tag for this summer.
"We've worked quite hard as a set-up to get to where we are now," said Arthur, whose squad is arguably as united as at any time in their post-Apartheid history, with every member of the starting 11, irrespective of creed, earning their place in the side on merit. "We are a goal-orientated side. It's taken us two years to get this team, and a series win in England is high up on our priorities.
"We set about getting an attack with three strikers," said Arthur, who once again underlined the importance of a world-class allrounder. "We're very lucky to have Jacques Kallis, he's like a 12th player for us, because he bats in the top four, and he bowls in the top four, if you like. He gives us unbelievable balance, because he can play any role we want.
"But we wanted three strikers bowling over 140kph," said Arthur. "One who can swing it in, as Steyn does, Makhaya who angles across the left-handers especially, and Morne Morkel who gets unbelievable bounce. These guys are hugely exciting and it's going to be a treat to watch them this summer."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo