Six to watch
South Africa will start as favourites to win the Test match series against England. It kicks off at Lord's tomorrow and the desire to be successful at cricket's most famous venue will be uppermost in the minds of Graeme Smith's team. South Africa would do well to remember that England are a better and more settled Test match outfit than a one-day side, but if South Africa play to potential they simply hold too many punches for England.
They have batsmen capable of dominating England's attack. They have a powerful pace attack capable of sustaining good pace all day long on any given surface. Inconsistency at times with the ball and a touch of inexperience in certain batting positions are their only concerns. They have the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, catch well behind the wicket, and their outfielding is as good as it gets.
England, on the other hand, are without their talisman, Andrew Flintoff. South Africa have genuine respect for him and will be well pleased he is not playing. England still have a good all-round unit, though, and seem to have all areas covered. While they may lack South Africa's genuine pace, their attack offers nip and bounce, swing and consistency. Panesar's spin may prey on South Africa's complacency or over-confidence. It is England's batting that is questionable: a few players are struggling for form and the tail is rather long and lacking in skill to deal with the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Their fielding lacks intensity and determination at times. Man for man, England don't match South Africa, and if they are to win it will be through individual brilliance and not as a collective unit.
For my money, the players to watch and the most influential in deciding the series are:
Jacques Kallis This will probably be Kallis' last tour of England. He will want all of England to remember him for a long time to come. He enjoys the responsibility of keeping the South African batting together and has the skills and temperament to survive whatever England throw at him under any given conditions. All the batsmen in the team seek his advice and look to follow his example. Don't forget his contribution with the ball and his good hands behind the wicket. Look no further than Kallis for a Man-of-the-Series punt.
Dale Steyn Steyn's ability to swing the ball at real pace is his great asset. He will run in all day for Smith. His experience in county cricket has taught him to bowl an "English" length. He has also learnt to vary his pace and has become a much smarter operator of late. With him, Ntini and Morkel around, England will do well to get off to good starts. Steyn debuted against England in South Africa and took a pasting at the hands of Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick. He has not forgotten this and has a point to prove. He could very well make or break it for South Africa.
Mark Boucher Boucher and Smith install a sense of belief and purpose in the team. Along with Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince in the top six, Boucher will be called on to perform with the bat. His dogged determination will be much needed on this tour and he will have to score more runs than he perhaps realises. He relishes the challenge and would dearly love to win in England. His contribution from behind the stumps is what the bowlers look to the most, and in this role will have to be more observant than ever before.
Michael Vaughan If Vaughan bats well, England could hold their own. Under his captaincy they are a better team. He and Kevin Pietersen can take the game away from South Africa. His ability to focus and not be distracted under pressure is what the England team feed off. He is a rhythmical batsman who may find the South African bowlers to his liking - except Steyn, who he has battled against in the past. If he overcomes Steyn early in the series, he could be in for a very good one. He needs to lead from the front with form and example, for the South African attack will go after him. Paul Harris could be a significant threat, as Vaughan tends to get his pad in the way early on.
Kevin Pietersen He is the player the South African side will discuss the most. Pietersen has a good record against South Africa and has already proved his mental strength and determination under pressure against them. Only he can allow himself to be distracted and play the man instead of the ball. South Africa will have a plan for him and will try and isolate him, something England must thwart at all costs. They need to protect him and allow him to play his natural game. My only concern is that his defensive abilities and powers have got loose of late, and his single-mindedness sometimes deserts him. Smith will throw his quicks at him or tease him early on with Harris. He will play on Pietersen's problematic ego.
James Anderson Anderson's unpredictability will make him the most discussed English bowler by the South African batsmen. He lacks Steyn's consistency and sustained pace but nevertheless on his day is just as good. Together with Ryan Sidebottom he could very well have South Africa in early trouble as genuine swing is not something South African batsmen are used to. Smith and McKenzie are vulnerable in this regard early as their footwork gets out of sync. Amla and Prince are yet to deal with a swinging Duke ball under English conditions. If Anderson has a purple patch he could very well be England's best performer. However, his lack of belief and physical presence seem to be his biggest problems.