Strauss calls for controlled aggression
Like the massive Highveld thunderstorms in this part of the world, the pre-series atmosphere is thick with anticipation at Centurion, with Andrew Strauss calling on his team to use controlled aggression against South Africa when the contest finally gets underway on Wednesday morning.
The mood from the visiting camp in recent days has been one of quiet intent, fuelled by a determination not to back away from the challenge as the hosts aim to use their home advantage and pace attack to intimidate England. They have been careful not to get drawn into any pre-series battles with South Africa, but when the duel begins on the field, Strauss will make sure his charges stand toe-to-toe with the opposition.
"I'm keen for players to stand up and be counted in pressure situations and if you aren't willing to do that you won't survive very long in Test cricket," he told reporters on the eve of the match. "But it has to be done with thoughtfulness and be done smartly, there's no point in getting carried away. It needs to be calculated and controlled."
There has been a lot of waiting around for the players in the past fortnight, which has added to the eagerness for the action to finally begin. It feels a long time ago that England took a decisive 2-1 lead in the penultimate match of the ODI series in Port Elizabeth, whereupon it rained for a week in Durban before England travelled to East London for a low-key Test build-up.
"Leading up to this Test, both sides have had 10 days or so twiddling their thumbs and waiting for tomorrow to come about," Strauss said. "There will be 22 players pretty keen to make their mark early in the series and as is often the case the first day and first session can have a big bearing on where the series goes. We all know you aren't going to win a Test in the first session, but you can grab the momentum in the match."
England managed to get three-and-half days' cricket at East London and had another centre-wicket session at the High Performance centre in Pretoria on Monday. Quite how ready the team is to face a side that, until two weeks ago, were ranked No. 1 in the Test world will only become clear in the next few days, but Strauss is comfortable with the preparations.
"I think you are prepared if you are mentally in the right place," he said. "We learnt that by going back to India after the bombings and I think because we've had quite a big gap between the one-dayers and the Tests we've had enough time to prepare ourselves mentally.
"We haven't had a four-day game, so in terms of replicating a Test match we haven't had that, but I'm comfortable with where are at. The mood is pretty boisterous and happy. We are conscious we need to have our game on tomorrow - you can't afford to ease into any Test series, but certainly if you haven't played for a while."
This will be England's first Test since they regained the Ashes at The Oval in August, but unlike 2005 when they lost their focus, Strauss is adamant there won't be any lingering on past glories.
"The post-Ashes glow went in that one-day series against Australia to be honest," he said. "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. 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."
Both Makhaya Ntini and Graeme Smith have pinpointed the post-Ashes retirement of Andrew Flintoff as a problem for England, but Strauss believes he has the players to cause South Africa plenty of problems and is quite happy if the opposition are lulled into a false sense of security.
"We are obviously going to miss a guy of that quality and the balance of the side is affected," Strauss said. "But as for him being the only player who can intimidate South Africa, if they feel that, then I think that's a good thing for us because we have some very good cricketers who can surprise them over the coming weeks."
As usual Strauss will wait until the morning of the Test to reveal his line-up - although he is confident over the fitness of both James Anderson and Graeme Swann - and was cautious when assessing a very green surface 24 hours before the game was due to start. If the surface remains heavily grassed in the morning Ian Bell will certainly be in contention, but Strauss is aware conditions can change over five days.
"I'm still not 100% sure how the wicket will play," he said. "We turned up to one of the one-dayers in the Champions Trophy and the wicket didn't look very good but ended up playing pretty well. Certainly at this stage there looks like there is quite a lot of green grass on it but we've still got all three options available to use and I think we'd be quite hesitant to name our side prior to tomorrow morning - even to our players - because these sorts of wickets can change quite a lot overnight."
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo