Pace to the fore as South Africa seek series leveller
January 14-18, 2015
Start time 10.30am local (0830 GMT)
After the hectic festive period, everyone has had a chance to take stock over the past week following two Test matches that have provided much intrigue and many talking points. England hold the advantage at 1-0, but South Africa finished the Newlands Test in much better shape than could have been imagined after their mauling by Ben Stokes and rarely has the resignation of a captain mid-series been viewed in such a positive light.
Now AB de Villiers prepares to lead South Africa for the first time in Tests - a job he has long coveted - but for how long he is in charge, or even playing the five-day format, is one of the burning questions of the moment. The immediate challenge for him, though, is to ensure that his team still have the chance to claim the series at Centurion.
Their prospects have taken a hit with Dale Steyn being ruled out - regardless of the much-improved final-day bowling at Cape Town, Steyn remains the leading pace bowler in the world and his absence is a considerable void to fill for the fifth time in the last seven Tests. Not only is de Villiers' long-term future a source of much debate, so too is Steyn's. South Africa are entering a tipping point in their cricket history.
England are not immune to such issues, either, although currently they are in a stronger position from which to handle them. Jos Buttler's march towards the IPL confirms the sea change in English cricket's attitude to that format, but whereas de Villiers appears to be wavering over his future James Anderson has committed to bowling his final ball for England.
The prize on offer for England this week is one of the most sought-after in the game. Their 2004-05 series win in South Africa is among their finest overseas victories and for a youthful, developing side a repeat here would be equally notable regardless of the problems South Africa are facing.
Their week off has not been seamless with some members of the squad hit by a stomach illness and now Alex Hales has a throat infection. After the spate of missed chances at Newlands, they will have to make sure they are better at catching balls than bugs.
(last five matches, most recent first)
South Africa DLLLD
In the spotlight
Steven Finn has been outstanding during the first two Tests, a particularly worthy achievement given he was doubtful even to make the series due to the foot injury which ruled him out against Pakistan. He was the most hostile of England's quicks when the Newlands surface was at its most comfortable, and that followed his crucial second-innings incisions in Durban. He is a clear beneficiary of England's five-man attack, which allows a spreading of the workload, but he has still clocked up 69 overs in the two Tests - the most among England's quicks - and the Wanderers will be an indication of his powers of recovery. It should be a surface to encourage his splice-jarring type of bowling, so long as he isn't drawn into bowling too short.
Morne Morkel will again lead South Africa's attack in the absence of Dale Steyn. His workload is being carefully watched by the team management and the coach Russell Domingo has said Morkel is in the "red zone" which is a warning sign when injuries are more likely to occur. He will be, however, one of a four-prong pace attack, which ought to help ease the strain on him, although South Africa will also need him to start the Test well rather than improve as the match goes on. He has not taken a five-wicket haul in five Tests at the Wanderers - this would be the ideal time to improve on that record.
South Africa opted on the eve of the match to release their frontline spinner, Dane Piedt, which means four quicks will line up at the Wanderers. The uncapped Hardus Viljoen has an impressive first-class record at the Wanderers and both Domingo and de Villiers have dropped strong hints that he is firmly in the frame for a Test debut. Chris Morris, who debuted at Cape Town last week, seems set to retain his place ahead of Kyle Abbott, not least thanks to his determined batting and outstanding work in the slip cordon. There could be another change with JP Duminy returning to the middle order after his career-best 260 in the recent four-day match which would mean Quinton de Kock opening in place of Stiaan van Zyl and would also provide another part-time spin option. Such a move would retain four players of colour in the absence of Piedt.
South Africa (possible) 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 Faf du Plessis, 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Chris Morris, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Hardus Viljoen, 11 Morne Morkel
Alex Hales was suffering from a throat infection on the eve of the Test and a decision on his participation would be taken on the morning of the game. If he is forced to sit out, it is likely that Nick Compton would open with Gary Ballance returning to side although the No. 3 berth could go to James Taylor.
England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Nick Compton, 4 Joe Root, 5 James Taylor, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steven Finn
Pitch and conditions
The first Test pitch produced by Bethuel Buthelezi is dry and cracked after the recent hot spell in the Highveld but is expected to play with the usual trueness of a Wanderers surface. As Newlands showed, having cracks on the surface early on does not mean they will always open up as the match progresses. Temperatures have dipped a little from the record figures recorded at the height of the heatwave while the common afternoon thunderstorms are expected to feature.
Stats and trivia
- In their last 10 Tests - since the start of the Ashes - England have had just three hundreds from their top five (two for Joe Root and one for Alastair Cook)
- The Wanderers produces results: there has been one draw in the last 13 Tests - and that was with South Africa 450 for 7 chasing 458 - and since readmission there have been just six draws in 24 Tests with two of those involving significant rain.
- Five more wickets will take James Anderson ahead of Richard Hadlee (431) into seventh place in the all-time list
Everything feels very normal. We've got a very stable team culture. Not much has changed. I still feel the same. I know this come with a lot of responsibility. I am a very competitive person and I truly hate losing. There's a big focus on winning.
For now, it's business as usual for AB de Villiers
"It would be a great achievement for this side to come here and beat South Africa and we've earned a chance to do that over the next 14 days if we play good cricket."
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo