SA seek succour after confidence-crushing loss
January 22-26, 2015
Start time 10.30am local (0830 GMT)
England are not used to having nothing at stake on their tours of South Africa. Only once before on their four previous visits since readmission have they arrived at the final Test of the series with the contest already done and dusted. Even then - at Centurion in 1999-2000 during Hansie Cronje's infamous "leather-jacket Test" - Nasser Hussain's euphoria when England sealed a tense two-wicket win following a double innings forfeiture betrayed the huge (albeit brief) significance of the victory. After all, Hussain's side had started that trip at rock bottom (2 for 4 and all that), and were grateful for any hand-holds going.
Perhaps something of that mentality can be read into AB de Villiers' insistence that "there are no dead rubbers in Test cricket". A quick glance at the tour results ahead of the fourth and final Test at Centurion will beg to differ - two crushing defeats at Durban and Johannesburg, the latter signed and sealed in an extraordinary third-afternoon rampage from the new world No. 1 bowler, Stuart Broad, have left South Africa with no place to hide in the final analysis of the series.
Their mitigating factors, such as the continued absence of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, cannot atone for the shortcomings elsewhere in the squad, most notably at the top of the order, where Stephen Cook's impending Test baptism feels like a stable-door-shutting exercise following the series-long exposure of Stiaan van Zyl's credentials. De Villiers, the new but self-evidently unsettled captain, has spent more time discussing his plans for the future than expressing any pride in the present, while the cokey-hokey of the wicketkeeping situation, with Dane Vilas coming, going, coming and going again amid the confusion of Quinton de Kock's knee injury, suggests that the selectors and the medical team have mislaid each other's contact details.
But nevertheless, de Villiers is right in his insistence that the coming five days matter deeply for his team. After all, barely a fortnight has elapsed since South Africa were finishing the second Test at Cape Town with a flourish - buoyed by Temba Bavuma's maiden Test century and putting a previously dominant England team under some timely third-innings pressure. The feeling at that moment, and one that briefly carried over to a hard-fought first two days in Johannesburg, was that South Africa had turned a corner in their public's perception, and were ready to be judged on the merits of the here and now, rather than their wavering No.1 Test status - which, as England's coach Trevor Bayliss astutely noted, was always more of a recognition of the past than the present anyway.
The manner of their capitulation at the Wanderers rather scuppered that fleeting feel-good factor. Broad has made a habit of rattling through teams in such a manner, but the timing of his onslaught was especially galling for South Africa. It wrecked a perfectly poised contest in which England had been restricted to a first-innings lead of 10, and it came in front of a stunned and South Africa-dominated crowd of 19,338, the biggest contingent of home supporters in the series. A similar figure had been anticipated for the Sunday-that-wasn't, but the void was felt more acutely than simply by Gauteng's coffers.
For England, it has been a joyous week - they were delighted to fill those empty two days with some unexpected rounds of golf at Leopard Creek and, after the disappointments of the Pakistan series in the UAE before Christmas, they have emphatically delivered on their pre-series optimism. Then as now, the excellence of a few have arguably masked the shortcomings of the many, with Alex Hales not yet convincing as Alastair Cook's latest opening partner and another Steven Finn injury - this time a side strain - turning the spotlight on a bowling attack that has, aside from one unforgettable session, relied a touch too heavily on loose batting for their breakthroughs.
Then again, England have few causes for complaint. There may always be room for improvement, yet two of their outstanding players of the campaign have been Joe Root, 25, and Ben Stokes, 24, arguably the most talented double-act to have emerged in England's top six since David Gower and Ian Botham four decades ago.
(last five matches, most recent first)
South Africa LDLLL
In the spotlight
It's not been the most convincing of Test baptisms for Alex Hales. Cook's eighth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss has managed 120 in six innings, exactly half of which came in the early stages of the Cape Town run-feast. The limitations of his technique have been exposed, with very stiff drives and pokes outside off regularly leading to his downfall, but perhaps more tellingly he has not trusted himself to play his natural game, which - as he regularly showed for Nottinghamshire in the Championship last summer - involves taking a domineering attitude and running with it. If he can shed the reticence and have a fling with the series already wrapped up, he could yet unlock the potential that has so far been under wraps.
Kagiso Rabada is the real deal. A genuinely athletic fast-bowling talent, with an action that purrs through the crease and that rare ability to make things happen, as evidenced by his two wickets in two balls that briefly had England under the pump on a featherbed in Cape Town, and his maiden five-wicket haul on the third morning in Johannesburg, an achievement that did not deserve to be so brutally overshadowed within a session by Broad. He's got temperament and technique with the bat as well, as his top-score of 16 in that grim second innings attests. Like Temba Bavuma's century at Newlands, Rabada's emergence feels like the end of a long and at times fruitless search for a black South African who can inspire a generation. Placing such a burden on his shoulders might seem cruel, but he has coped admirably with the burden of leading the line in the prolonged absence of Steyn. He looks like the sort of character who can come out of South Africa's current challenges with pride.
After banging at the door in domestic cricket for the best part of five years, Cook has finally been given the chance to make his Test debut at the age of 33. Admittedly his father Jimmy was an even more venerable 39 when he got his chance (and a first-baller…) against India in 1992-93 but, either way, Stephen replaces Stiaan van Zyl alongside Dean Elgar. De Kock has passed a fitness test on the knee injury that caused him to miss the Johannesburg Test, so returns in place of Vilas. JP Duminy could yet put Faf du Plessis under pressure in the middle-order, not least because he can bowl a bit of spin. Dane Piedt, however, is expected to return in place of Hardus Viljoen as South Africa revert to a three-seam attack.
South Africa (possible) 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Stephen Cook, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 Faf du Plessis, 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Chris Morris, 9 Dane Piedt, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Morne Morkel
Finn's absence means a rejig of England's seam options. The toss-up is between the like-for-(sort of)-like replacement, in Mark Footitt, whose extra pace and left-arm line could earn him a Test debut, notwithstanding the fact that he failed to impress during the warm-ups, and the all-round skills of Chris Woakes, who was an able if unlucky understudy when James Anderson was unfit in Durban. The signs point to a Woakes recall, the only anticipated change to the starting XI.
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 Chris Woakes, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditions
Centurion has tended to favour seam bowling and the first Test pitch produced in over a year was cracked and uneven the day before the match. De Villiers suggested it would be offer something for the bowlers up front, before becoming a good surface to bat on and then deteriorating towards the end of the game; the only draw in the last decade at the ground was when England held on nine-down in 2009-10. The forecast for thundery showers should keep everyone on their toes.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa's record in Tests at Centurion is outstanding - except in Tests against England. They have won 15 out of 20 matches at the venue, with just two defeats, most recently against a Mitchell Johnson-inspired Australia in 2014. The other came in 1999-00, the notorious Cronje Test against England, and they have never yet atoned for it. Washouts in 1995-96 and 2004-05 were followed in 2009-10 by the first of Graham Onions' great escapes.
- Alastair Cook needs 117 runs to become the first Englishman to reach 10,000 in Tests.
- James Anderson needs three wickets to go past Richard Hadlee into seventh place on the all-time list; Stuart Broad is currently level with Allan Donald in 22nd.
- This match with be South Africa's 400th in Tests. They have currently gone nine Tests without a win - their longest drought since 1964-65.
- The last time South Africa lost a home series by a margin of three or more Tests was against Australia in 2005-06
"We'd hate to lose 3-0. I think 2-1 sounds a lot better. It would be great to win a Test. We haven't won a Test for 12 months."
AB de Villiers issues a rallying cry ahead of the final match of the series
"I'm sure if Jimmy reads that he'll have a word to say. Some of his speeds have been pretty good in this series and he hasn't quite had the luck, certainly in the last game."
Alastair Cook responds to de Villiers' suggestion that some of England's attack have lost pace
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket