Series lead up for grabs
Match factsDecember 26-30, 2009
Start time 10.00 am (0800 GMT)
For South Africa, Christmas so nearly came early in Centurion last week, when England's lower order crumbled in the face of an inspired new-ball spell from Friedel de Wet, and it was left to Graham Onions' improbably broad bat to salvage a shred of dignity in a contest that, as late as tea on the final day, had seemed dead-set for the draw.
At Cardiff at the start of England's Ashes summer, a similar scenario had felt like a victory, given the extent to which England had been outplayed throughout that contest. This time, however, there was no way that England could claim to have emerged from Centurion with momentum. As Andrew Strauss admitted at the end of the game, it was pretty embarrassing to have got themselves into such a predicament in the first place.
Nevertheless, the drama of that last hour has confirmed just how competitive this series is set to be, and as the teams reconvene in Durban for the Boxing Day Test, Graeme Smith and his men will believe that, having come so close in such an unlikely fashion, they will be even better placed to apply sustained pressure over the coming five days, especially if Jacques Kallis' return to bowling fitness is supplemented by the comeback of their world No.1-ranked bowler, Dale Steyn.
England will still, however, believe they have the wherewithal to put South Africa under equal amounts of pressure. For proof of that possibility, they need only cast their minds back to their previous tour of the country in 2004-05, when - having themselves been thwarted two wickets from victory in a gripping Boxing Day Test - they headed off to Cape Town for New Year and found themselves on the wrong end of a 196-run hiding.
Strauss will know that there is considerable room for English improvement in Durban, both in terms of onfield performance, but also luck. In hindsight, winning the toss on a misleadingly green wicket was no advantage whatsoever, and England will surely use their umpiring review opportunities much wisely than they did in Centurion. Either way, both teams have reason to believe that the series is still very much theirs for the taking.
Form guide (last 5 Tests, most recent first)South Africa DWLLL
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Ian Bell was the understandable focus of England's first-Test failings, given that he had been a last-minute pick to shore up the batting, yet mustered seven runs in two innings, including a hideous first-innings leave to Paul Harris. Nevertheless, all the focus on Bell has detracted from another under-achiever higher up the order. Alastair Cook's match was scarcely any better - he managed scores of 15 and 12, and would have fallen for a first-ball duck to Makhaya Ntini had it not been for AB de Villiers' rare blemish at slip. Despite extensive remedial work on his technique with Graham Gooch, he's managed just two centuries in the past 24 months, and having turned 25 on the eve of the match, a return to the precocious form of his first year in international cricket is overdue.
Leading into this tour, England still had their doubts about Hashim Amla. He made an important century at Lord's in 2008 to save the Test that turned that particular series, but a weakness against the short ball ensured that he remained a target in the top-order, just as he had been on his home Test debut, on this very ground in 2004-05, when he was tormented by Steve Harmison and managed one run in two innings. At Centurion last week, however, he came of age in the eyes of his previously sceptical opponents, producing a century of exceptional skill and diligence to stave off the prospect of an England heist. He now belongs in South Africa's middle-order entirely on merit.
De Wet's demolition job in Centurion set a cat among the selectorial pigeons, and in any ordinary circumstances, he would surely expect a follow-up Test appearance as reward for the match-turning efforts he produced on debut. However, with Steyn set to return to the fold after his hamstring injury, the only other candidate to make way is the venerable Makhaya Ntini, and that - for innumerable different reasons - just isn't going to happen. At least with Kallis expected to play a more rounded all-round role, South Africa will be armed with an extra bowling option.
South Africa: (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Ashwell Prince, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Paul Harris, 9 Morne Morkel, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Makhaya Ntini.
Bell and Cook are under the cosh, but England like to avoid panic measures wherever possible, and with doubts still existing about Luke Wright's readiness for Test cricket, the likelihood is of an unchanged starting XI, and a chance for the players who mucked up in Centurion to atone for their errors. A similar policy has paid dividends in the past, but England's lack of genuine batting alternatives is probably the single biggest reason for the mass reprieve.
England: (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Graham Onions.
Pitch and conditions
Durban is hot, hot, hot, and Kingsmead is one of the muggiest venues in the international game. It promises to be a strength-sapping contest for fielders on both sides, but equally, it could be one of opportunity if the pitch turns out to be a traditional "green mamba". Five years ago, Smith won the toss and rightly fielded first, whereupon Shaun Pollock, Steyn and Ntini routed England for 139 in their first innings inside two sessions. Strauss will surely be wary of taking such a route given what happened in Centurion, but he'd be unwise to dismiss such a notion out of hand.
Stats and Trivia
- Durban was famously the venue of the Timeless Test in 1938, but even since readmission, it has retained a certain reputation for staging stalemates. England have never yet lost in three attempts since 1995-96, while South Africa have drawn six of their 17 Tests there since 1992.
- Jacques Kallis is certainly a fan of Kingsmead. He has amassed a formidable 1046 runs in 20 Test innings, at a mighty average of 58.11. His four centuries include the 162 he made on England's last visit.
- For a full statistical preview, Click here
Quotes"My life has turned around in a big, big way from running around here as a kid to where I am now. I love it; I would never ever change anything."
Kevin Pietersen is set to play his first Test at the venue where he first started out in professional cricket, but he's not going to get sentimental about the homecoming.
"I'm not sure he's taken part in any of our meetings."
Graeme Smith has been his usual vocal self in the lead-up to the second Test, but Andrew Strauss will not be drawn into open conflict
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo