It all comes down to the Bullring
January 14-18, 2009
Start time 10.30 am (0830 GMT)
With its towering stands at either end of the ground, and the forbidding Perspex tunnel leading from the pavilion to the playing area, there are few more daunting venues for a touring team than the Wanderers. Factor in the prospect of a seething green surface and an opposition ready to bring a "do-or-die" attitude into the contest, and the stage is set for a battle of rare intensity. For all the narrowness of their escapes at Centurion and Cape Town, if England prevail in the grand finale of a memorable campaign, no-one will question their right to return home with the spoils.
England have no reason to be fearful of the Wanderers, however, for their record in three visits since readmission is as balanced as could be. From Michael Atherton's epic 185 not out, via 2 for 4 and all that, and all the way to Matthew Hoggard's 12-wicket heist in 2004-05, they have emerged with one draw, one defeat and one win, with each encounter as memorable as the next. The only fitting follow-up would be a tie.
Whatever happens, short of a five-day deluge, it seems certain that this contest will finish with a positive result. Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, has admitted that it is "desperation time" for a home side who were not so long ago ranked as the No. 1 Test nation in the world, but now face the unpalatable prospect of back-to-back home series defeats against their two most ardent foes, Australia and England.
England, on the other hand, stand on the brink of an achievement that would trump even their Ashes success back in the summer. Five years ago, when Michael Vaughan's men won 2-1 in a classic five-match contest, the magnitude of their achievement was diluted by the rampant run of success that the team had already put together, and was soon to be overshadowed by what followed against Australia.
This time, however, there's no doubt that England are still on the upward slope - it is, after all, less than a year since they were bundled out for 51 in Jamaica. Five more days of intense concentration in the rarified Highveld atmosphere, and Andrew Strauss's England can truly claim to have scaled new heights.
Form guide (last 5 Tests, most recent first)
South Africa DLDWL
Watch out for
Throughout England's recent resurgence, one significant character has kept an improbably low profile. Kevin Pietersen was injured for much of the Ashes, and has been off the boil throughout his homecoming tour of South Africa, with his highest score of 81 at Centurion coming to an end via a manic and embarrassing run-out. The potent atmosphere of the Bullring, however, has stirred him to great deeds in the past. It was here, in 2004-05, that he ran a gauntlet of hate and vitriol to finish unbeaten in his first England innings in his former country, and kick-start an incredible run of form. Right now, following scores of 6 and 0 at Cape Town, even a moderate upturn in his fortunes would suffice.
He began the series with a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the Centurion Test, but Dale Steyn strained every muscle and sinew in his body on the final day at Newlands in a bid to deliver the victory that South Africa so desperately needed for their series prospects. The world's No. 1-ranked bowler was quite magnificent, not least in a stunning new-ball spell against Paul Collingwood in which he beat the bat at will but simply couldn't graze the edge. If he can stoke his fires once more, England will be in for another rough ride in the coming five days.
It's been an eventful week in South Africa's selection circles, with Imran Tahir called up as a legspinning option, only to be hastily jettisoned after it was discovered that his papers weren't entirely in order, and Friedel de Wet dropping out of the reckoning after failing to recover from the back injury that undermined his performance in the latter stages at Newlands. The upshot is a likely debut for the wonderkid, Wayne Parnell, whose zippy left-arm line so impressed during the World Twenty20 in England, and a sure-fire reprieve for Paul Harris, who was always likely to survive the cut despite his lacklustre display in the fourth innings last week.
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 Wayne Parnell.
England, on the other hand, have no dramas to report whatsoever. All of their cogs, with the improbable exception of Pietersen, are in fine working order; the balance of the side, with Ian Bell at No. 6, has been the difference between a 1-0 lead and a 2-0 deficit; while Graham Onions is worth his place for his No.11 batting alone. Anything other than an unchanged side would be a major shock.
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
This is what it all comes down to. The weather on the Highveld has been miserable of late, with copious quantities of rain hampering the pitch preparations - not that that concerns the South Africa management, of course, who want a result wicket above all else, although Graeme Smith said it should be "a fair" Test pitch. Almost exactly a decade ago, England went out to bat in dank conditions on the first morning of their millennium tour, and shipped four wickets in the space of 17 balls. It's fair to suggest that Andrew Strauss might prefer to bowl first, come what may, on Thursday morning.
Stats and Trivia
- South Africa's record at the Wanderers is less formidable than the ground's surroundings. They have won 12 and lost nine of their 31 Tests at the venue, including eight wins and seven losses in 20 matches since readmission in 1992.
- Jacques Kallis needs just six runs to amass 1000 in Tests at Johannesburg. His current tally includes two hundreds at 45.18
- For a full statistical preview, click here.
"If we prepare a flattie, we are basically handing the series over to England, so we know it's going to be an interesting wicket to play on."
Dale Steyn is licking his lips in anticipation of a seamer-friendly surface.
"We didn't come here to draw a series; we came here to win one. If we can go back 2-0, that would be a dream come true for all of us. It would obviously be a fabulous achievement to beat two of the top teams in the world, in back-to-back Test series. We don't want to be the nearly-men."
Matt Prior is desperate to make history for England.
"The Wanderers is a sporting wicket, even when I grew up here watching Tests it's been a great challenge between bat and ball. The next five days will be no different. There will be some stuff there, it will be hard work at times for batters and bowlers. It will be a fair Test wicket, this is one of the sportier wickets around the world."
Graeme Smith covers all his options when asked about the pitch
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo