December 16-20, 2009
Start time 10.30am (0830 GMT)
Four months have elapsed since England achieved their crowning glory of 2009, against Australia on August 23, when Andrew Strauss lifted the Ashes following his team's 197-run victory in the fifth Test at The Oval. For South Africa, meanwhile, it is a year to the month since they themselves reached Nirvana, Down Under in December 2008, when they won their first Test series in Australia with a brace of stunning victories at Perth and Melbourne.
Now, the two teams come head-to-head in a contest that could yet prove to be the most compelling series of the year. England and South Africa have vied and tussled for the upper hand ever since their first meeting of the post-Apartheid era in 1994 - in that time, South Africa have won three series to England's two, with two drawn rubbers, although neither side has yet managed a series win by more than a single Test's margin.
As England demonstrated back in 2005 (but are now at pains to disprove four years later), there is a danger inherent in overcoming Australia - particularly where these two teams are concerned. Subconsciously or otherwise, it can be regarded as an end in itself rather than a means, and much to South Africa's chagrin, they squandered their ascendancy - and ultimately their title of No. 1 side in the world - by allowing themselves to be overturned on home soil by a rookie Australian line-up in the return series in March, which also happens to have been their most recent Test encounter.
Thus there is plenty at stake in this four-Test contest - there is pride to be upheld for both sides, and preconceptions to be punctured as well.
Form guide (last 5 Tests, most recent first)
South Africa WLLLW
Watch out for
Graeme Smith has hinted that England are over-reliant on their captain, Andrew Strauss, but as he's shown with his pointed barbs in the past, South Africa's captain does not pick his targets lightly. In Strauss, Smith has identified a man of improbably similar temperament - a left-handed opener with a streak of steel running through his game, and upon whose personal success the renaissance of his team has been built. Strauss's runs during the Ashes were the single biggest factor in England's triumph in the summer, and as for his contentment on South African soil, one needs look no further than his tally of 656 runs in England's 2-1 series victory on their most recent visit in 2004-05.
He is perpetually overlooked in the search for the most influential cricketer of the 2000s, but the daily medical updates emanating from his oxygen chamber have highlighted Jacques Kallis's singular importance to South Africa. As Mickey Arthur was at pains to point out during the one-day series, there is no easy way to replace 10,000 Test runs and more than 250 wickets, and in fact, their failure to do so was the single biggest reason why South Africa lost that particular contest 2-1. Now, Kallis's injured ribs are said to have healed sufficiently to allow him to provide ballast to the batting, but his under-rated and partnership-breaking bowling may have to be kept on hold for another Test.
South Africa telegraphed their intent by releasing three members of their squad a full 48 hours in advance of the first Test. Alviro Petersen, Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell were all sent back to their franchises, with only the uncapped fast bowler, Friedel de Wet, remaining with the squad as a like-for-like replacement for Dale Steyn, who has a mild hamstring complaint. Given his pivotal status in the side, he will surely be passed fit for Wednesday.
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.
All the talk in the build-up to the Test was of the likelihood of Luke Wright's Test debut as a Flintoff-lite option at No. 7, but having arrived in Centurion, and assessed the conditions both of the wicket and their opponents, England are beginning to shy away from such an ambitious approach. Instead, with Jonathan Trott confirmed at No. 3, Ian Bell could be asked to slot in at No. 6, having performed well under pressure during his first-innings 72 in the Ashes decider in August. Graeme Swann has had a recurrence of his side strain in recent days, leading to a call-up for the Kent spinner, James Tredwell, but that is thought to be merely a precaution. Despite Ryan Sidebottom's five-wicket haul at East London this week, his ropey injury record doesn't sit well with concerns about James Anderson's knee.
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
It's been damp on the Highveld in recent weeks, and it shows. With 24 hours to go until the start of play, the pitch is green and seething, and providing all the more reason for England to put their faith in three specialist seamers, and trust Bell to provide an extra measure of technical expertise with the bat. South Africa are adamant that Kallis won't bowl, but the anticipated conditions would suit his subtle swingers to a tee.
Stats and Trivia
England have never yet lost a Test match at Centurion. In the inaugural Test at the ground in 1995-96, Graeme Hick scored one of his finest centuries for England, but dramatic thunderstorms wrecked any chance of a result, while in 2004-05, England batted out the draw they required to take the series. And then, of course, there were the notorious events surrounding the double innings-forfeiture in 1999-2000. England won a thrilling finale by two wickets, but subsequent relevations about Hansie Cronje's links with bookmakers soured the achievement.
Nevertheless, South Africa's record at the ground is devastating. In 14 matches they have won 11, drawn two, and lost just that one match to England, and of those wins, four have been by an innings.
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"I haven't played a Test series against England that hasn't been tough. Every series I've played against England has been hard-fought, and have always come down to little moments within each game."
South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, is braced for another memorable series
"I think we are all eager to return to Test cricket, it allows us to reconnect with what happened in the Ashes and think about what went well and what didn't. That's a healthy thing for us, but it's a very different set of circumstances. We can't afford to look back too much."
Andrew Strauss wants to recreate that Ashes feeling, without dwelling on it too deeply
"Trott has all the attributes to be a very good No. 3 in Test cricket. His temperament is very sound, he plays quick bowling very well, and hopefully he'll grab his opportunity."
Strauss backs the homecoming-boy, Jonathan Trott, to succeed in his new role