Two sides with issues makes for tight tussle
On paper, it shouldn't even be close.
The No. 1 side in the world are playing at home. And they are playing against a side that has lost three of its last four Tests, has won just one of the four Test series it has completed this year and which seems likely to be without its leading wicket-taker due to injury. The bookies make South Africa the favourites; it is hard to disagree.
And yet, the sense remains that England have an opportunity in South Africa. The sense remains that, despite having won only one opening Test on tour since victory in Port Elizabeth in 2004, a new look England have an opportunity to exploit a South Africa side whose confidence was dented by defeat in India, whose key players are all over 30 and, in a couple of cases, recovering from injury.
Might there be parallels with 2012? At that time, England were the No. 1 rated side and South Africa the hungry chasers. The hosts were tired, divided and in decline. South Africa punished their lack of unity and their mistakes.
More specifically, England were wedded to an approach that brought short-term benefits but, in retrospect, could not work over a long period: the balance of their side - three seamers and a spinner - compromised the effectiveness of the players required to do much of the bowling. Graeme Swann retired early, Tim Bresnan's elbow problems robbed him of the nip that, just briefly, rendered him a top-class performer and both Stuart Broad and James Anderson have been obliged to curb the pace they possessed early in their careers. Too much was asked of them.
Could it be the same with South Africa now? Almost every seamer in contention for their Test team has suffered some sort of injury in the recent past. Vernon Philander, so effective in Cape Town (where he averages 19.93 with the ball), has already been ruled out of the first two Tests, and while Dale Steyn has proved his fitness, the number of overs he may be required to bowl does not give him the best chance of maintaining it. He is a thoroughbred; he shouldn't be pulling a plough.
To spread the load, South Africa could consider playing four seamers and using Dean Elgar and JP Duminy for a spin option but Hashim Amla's indication was that they would play offspinner Dane Piedt which would further increase the load on three quicks. Whichever way you look at it, Jacques Kallis is missed almost as much for his bowling as his batting.
It would be silly to compare Ben Stokes to Kallis. But there is no doubt that the presence of two allrounders (Moeen Ali is the other) is a major asset to England. It allows them to rotate their bowlers in a way that may prove crucial with just two days between the first two Tests and it allows them to bat deep. The runs added by Moeen and Broad in the Ashes, for the eighth or ninth wicket, and always made at a fast pace against tiring bowlers, were vital.
The excellence of four or five players seems to be masking cracks in the South Africa side. On the basis of the performance of the A team against England this week, there is a worrying lack of depth in domestic cricket. The drain of talent to England - Kolpak registrations, UK passport holders et al - has diluted the quality of the domestic system in South Africa. But for a stronger Rand and a more rewarding domestic programme, the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Craig Kieswetter, Michael Lumb, Nick Compton and many, many more might have pursued their careers in the land of their birth. Had they done so, the domestic system might have been improved and the standard may have remained higher.
Perhaps, in the long term, it is just as worrying that despite the free entry, very few local spectators turned up to watch the match in Pietermartizburg. Long-form cricket has no room for complacency in South Africa, just as it had no room for complacency in the Caribbean a decade or two ago.
None of this is meant to denigrate the current South Africa Test side. In Amla and AB de Villiers they have two great batsmen; in Steyn and Morne Morkel they have a pair of top-class bowlers and Andy Murray showed us recently what impact just one top player can have on a team.
Kagiso Rabada offers hope for the future, too. But, now without Graeme Smith and Kallis, they are not the side they were and the bench strength looks weaker.
It would be easy to dismiss defeat in India as an aberration. Conditions at home will bear little comparison and it seems unlikely that any potential weakness against spin will be exploited. But South Africa play so little Test cricket these days - a rain-ruined series in Bangladesh was their only other complete series in 2015 - that new players have little opportunity to adapt to the disciplines required in the longest format. You have to go back almost two years, to the Australian tour, since they were seriously challenged at home.
As a result (and as made clear by S Rajesh in his preview of the series), there is little "home advantage." New South African batsmen are almost as unfamiliar with their Test wickets, which traditionally have offered a little more bounce, as their visitors.
England have questions to answer themselves. They have been inconsistent throughout the year, reserving most of the best moments for typically English conditions and again being well beaten by Pakistan. The opening partner to Alastair Cook has tended to have the poor employment prospects and the middle-order, the excellent Joe Root apart, has not delivered with any consistency.
Moeen, for all that he offers as an all-round package, knows he needs to contribute more as a holding bowler and using Jonny Bairstow as a keeper is a risk; some might even interpret it as an accident waiting to happen. Standing back to the seamers he is serviceable; standing up to Moeen he is very much a work in progress.
As England learned in 2012, when Amla was reprieved early on the way to make two match-defining centuries, you cannot give such players lives. The success or failure of England's new-look slip cordon - with Alex Hales the new man at third - may define the series. Anderson's potential absence as slip fielder to the spinners would add to the magnitude of his loss.
And, for all the talk of how impressive Chris Woakes looks in training - and he really does - the fact is he currently has a Test bowling average in excess of 50. He's better than that, but filling the shoes of Anderson is a daunting task and Woakes is yet to prove he is up to it.
But Cook, relieved of the uphill struggle that captaining the ODI had become, looks to have recovered the freshness that rendered him such a relentless accumulator of runs, the return of Compton would appear to stiffen the top-order and James Taylor is tough and versatile. Stokes and Root look in top form and, with all six of the batsmen having made half-centuries at least in the warm-up games, they should all go into the first Test with confidence high.
The series may come a little early for a redeveloping England side but, against a South Africa team which appears to be in decline, they have a great opportunity to prove themselves.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo