South Africa v England, 1st Test, Centurion December 15, 2009

Nothing to separate the closest of rivals

The recently deposed No. 1 side in the world, and one of the many pretenders to the crown. This four-match series has the ingredients to be a cracking contest. Test cricket has enjoyed a mini-boost in recent weeks with West Indies' vastly improved showing at Adelaide and an absorbing, if largely overlooked, series between New Zealand and Pakistan - not to mention Virender Sehwag's bar-raising exploits in Mumbai. Although this forthcoming battle between South Africa and England is one match short of the ideal length for an 'icon' series, the history between the two teams suggests that there will be plenty of drama.

Since South Africa's re-admission, the two sides have gone head-to-head in seven Test series. South Africa have won three (including the most recent in 2008), England have won two, and there have been two drawn contests (both on English soil). Although South Africa's home victories have given them the edge overall, there has never been more than a single result splitting the final scoreline.

"I haven't played a Test series against England that hasn't been tough," said South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith. "Every series I've played against England has been hard-fought, and have always come down to little moments within each game. We've had the edge of late; we played the better cricket in the last series in England and deserved our victory there."

Not always, though, has the result reflected the superiority of the winning side. In 1999-2000, South Africa were far stronger and both their victories came by innings margins, while England's consolation was all down to Hansie Cronje and a leather jacket. In 2004-05, meanwhile, the 2-1 margin didn't do justice to England, who bossed four out of the five Tests and in the end Matthew Hoggard's 12 wickets at the Wanderers proved to be the deciding factor.

In the most recent meeting between the two teams it was another outstanding solo effort that regained the Basil D'Oliveira trophy. Smith played one of the finest captains' innings seen in a run-chase - perhaps second only to Brian Lara's effort against Australia in Barbados - as his unbeaten 154 guided South Africa home at Edgbaston. Smith's innings came in the middle of South Africa's golden run of results, which culminated in their away victory against Australia last year and the No. 1 Test ranking.

However, that famous match in Melbourne, where Australia were finally conquered on home soil by a combination of JP Duminy and Dale Steyn, now feels a long time ago. South Africa lost the return series earlier this year and haven't played a Test match since, while India have since usurped them at the top of the ladder. A little bit of the strut has disappeared from South Africa's cricket (their one-day form in the last few months has been instructively poor) and this offers England a window of opportunity.

In England's last Test outing, they regained the Ashes at The Oval, a result that came despite, not because of, events during the past year. It's a huge credit to Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower that they have gelled the team after those fractious days in January when Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores lost their jobs on the same day. England genuinely look a happy team - to the extent that the BBC Sports Personality trophy that they picked up on Sunday night was aptly awarded.

"I think we are all eager to return to Test cricket, it allows us to reconnect with what happened in the Ashes and think about what went well and what didn't," Strauss said. "That's a healthy thing for us, but it's a very different set of circumstances. We can't afford to look back too much."

Their build-up hasn't been ideal, but that is a common situation for touring teams these days. When the rain cleared in East London, all the batsmen made runs, with Pietersen showing significant improvement in his form, and the bowlers managed a few decent spells even though they would have liked more. Either way, it is still far in excess of what the South Africans have managed. During their three-day camp in Potchefstroom they tried to simulate match conditions but it's never the same. England's opposition may have been friendly, but at least they were an opposition.

Normally, during a team's home season, the lack of time the team spends together isn't a major issue because players are immersed in domestic cricket. However, five of South Africa's squad haven't played first-class cricket since March. Ashwell Prince and Paul Harris have the most four-day practice under their belts after not being involved in the one-day squad. The one advantage South Africa have had was the chance to prepare at altitude while England were at sea level, but the visitors have spent considerable time in the Highveld over the last five weeks, so they know what to expect.

For both teams, though, there have been a number of similarities in the issues facing them during the lead-up to this series. Injuries to key players have been a concern with James Anderson and Jacques Kallis top of the list, while the latter's likely inability to bowl and the retirement of Andrew Flintoff has left both camps searching for balance.

South Africa have opted to stick with their specialists, using Kallis as a batsman and putting the bowling workload in the hands of a four-man unit. This is an opportunity England need to seize before Kallis returns to full health and the hosts have all their options available to them again.

England are keeping their cards close to their chest and it's still tough to call which way they will go; Luke Wright as the uncapped allrounder, Ian Bell at No. 6, or Stuart Broad at No. 7. Whoever is named in England's XI, the focus will be on the men at first- and second-drop. Smith has warned Pietersen to expect a tough reception ("I suppose Kevin's carrying the burden for comments he's made over a period of time," he said), but Jonathan Trott has so far escaped fairly lightly. Nothing much has fazed Trott in the early days of his international career and a bit of booing won't cause him to lose much sleep. Pietersen, meanwhile, loves nothing more than a baying audience.

"KP found himself in quite an unfamiliar situation at the start of this tour," Strauss said. "I think that has taken some adjusting to and you have to build up through the gears. I'm very happy with the way he's been going about things and he looked better and better through the warm-up game. KP being the type of person he is, he will want to have a massive impact on this series. When you combine that motivation with his obvious skills, it's a pretty good recipe."

If splitting the teams on paper is tough, the head-to-head at Centurion Park adds little to the picture. On the three occasions the teams have met here, rain has played a deciding part. In 1995-96 it ruined the event after tea on the second day; in 1999-2000 it prompted Cronje's generosity, and in 2004-05 it helped England to a draw that secured a famous series win. A dry game is overdue and after all the recent rain the forecast is promising. If either side can break the run of stalemates they will have made a significant step towards the major prize. Still, don't expect more than one game between them at the end.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo