December 26-30, 2015
Start time 10am local (0800 GMT)
Two weeks ago, as he held his departure press conference at Heathrow Airport, Alastair Cook lamented what he perceived to have been a missed opportunity during England's first Test engagement of an action-packed winter. His side had emerged with more credit than one might expect from a 2-0 series defeat against Pakistan in the UAE, but Cook's sights had been set much higher than the levels at which his team-mates had eventually settled. "Something inside of me says that was an opportunity that we couldn't quite take," he mused. Then, casting his eyes forward to South Africa, he added: "I wonder if this is an opportunity we can take."
Well, knock, knock ... If a tour of South Africa, the No. 1 Test nation in the world, remains a daunting proposition, then Cook, who has never yet toppled them in three previous series, knows that his young and evolving team has little to lose in the course of the coming four Tests - or, at least, nothing like as much as their hosts.
Since South Africa's readmission, England have triumphed in only one of their four away series against the hosts, and that classic encounter under Michael Vaughan's leadership eleven years ago came with a team that was cantering towards its 2005 Ashes zenith. So England's expectations are rightly tempered by comparison, not least with James Anderson unfit to lead the attack.
And yet, South Africa start the contest in a greater degree of flux than they have known in a generation. They too have spent the autumn being taught a lesson in Asian conditions, but their 3-0 trouncing in India carried few of the caveats that emerged from England's series. It was, incredibly, South Africa's first overseas loss in nine years, the sort of gravity-defying stat that demands a bit of respect when natural order is restored. And yet, that crashing-to-earth has coincided with a troublingly low ebb for the hosts. There's no sense, unlike with England, that an awakening is imminent or, indeed, expected.
With apologies to the interrupted icons of 1969-70, South Africa have entered the latter years of their greatest ever era. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini and Mark Boucher are among the mighty presences who have yet to be adequately replaced, while Dale Steyn's recent injury absences have proven to be more damaging than Anderson's ever were during the Ashes. Hashim Amla's form deserted him during the India tour, which needn't be a long-term alarm. But with AB de Villiers encumbered once again with the gloves (albeit he averages a freakish 58.26 in 23 Tests in that role), there is a sense of South Africa's stars being spread too thinly for anyone's liking.
England, to be fair, had only two batsmen of note in the UAE series. But one of them, Cook, is nearing his imperturbable best, while the other, Joe Root, goes into the series as arguably the current batsman in the world. Furthermore, it was spin that proved to be England's Achilles heel against Pakistan - the bowling of it as much as the facing of it - but they can rest assured that no Yasir Shah is going to mangle their techniques in these conditions. In fact Moeen Ali, on the evidence of his six-wicket haul against South Africa A at Pietermaritzburg this week, heads into Durban as the star slow bowler in either camp. And he's back as England's luxury selection at No. 8.
Anderson's absence does undermine the pre-series progress that England appeared to have made in their two warm-ups at Potchefstroom and Pietermaritzburg. Steven Finn's early return is a welcome counterpoint, of course, but Allan Donald believes that South Africa's fast bowling has greater depth than that of the visitors. Seeing as one of two very fine prospects in Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada seems set to miss out at Durban, he may have a point.
Nevertheless, after two years of spluttering reboots, England are unequivocally a team on the up - even if their results remain as fluctuating as the FTSE index. After a decade of phenomenally high standards, South Africa are a side experiencing a slow but inexorable descent back to earth. The question of whether their respective trajectories have yet crossed, or are ever destined to do so, is why the coming contest promises to be one of the most compelling of the year.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLDLD
In the spotlight
When he's on song, Alex Hales bats with the brash certainty of an English David Warner - and that is surely the template that England have in mind, now that they have finally taken a punt on a player whose Twenty20 power-hitting cannot be contained to one format. However, the timing of his promotion isn't exactly ideal. Though he picked off a morale-boosting hundred during the ODI series against Pakistan, something isn't quite clicking with Hales right now. He was off-colour in the home series against Australia and was bowled on three occasions in the warm-ups, twice while leaving the ball on off stump. That suggests a player who isn't trusting his natural see-ball-hit-ball game. But confidence is a fickle factor, and a handful of sweetly timed drives on Boxing Day morning could transform the horizons of Alastair Cook's eighth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss.
Hashim Amla's reign as the world's most mellifluous batsman has been long and serene - Broad, for one, will remember with a shudder his wicketless toil at The Oval in 2012, where Amla opened the last series between these two teams with a crushing 311 not out. And yet on the recent tour of India, Amla failed to match that tally in 14 completed innings, with his highest score of 43 coming in the opening Test in Mohali. There's no question that, at the age of 32, he's still very much in his prime, but with AB de Villiers restored to the wicketkeeping duties and enduring doubts about the quality of South Africa's top six in the post-Smith and Kallis era, the onus on Amla is to make his mark on the series, and quick. A command performance on his home ground at Kingsmead would be just the tonic for his team.
James Anderson has withdrawn with a calf strain and even if he recovers fitness in time for Cape Town it could have a detrimental effect on a player who has bowled only five overs on tour. In his absence, Chris Woakes can expect to earn a recall to make his fifth Test appearance, having last featured against India at The Oval in August 2014. At the top of the order, Hales's debut means Cook's partner in the UAE, Moeen Ali, slipping back to No. 8. Ian Bell's axing means a return for Nick Compton at No. 3, with James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow retaining the roles they inherited for the recent third Test in Sharjah. Steven Finn, who missed the Pakistan series with a stress injury in his foot, has roared back to form and fitness in double-quick time, and has leapfrogged all other contenders to reclaim his rightful place.
England (probable) 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 Chris Woakes, 11 Steven Finn.
After a chastening tour of India, South Africa welcome back Dale Steyn with open arms, now that he has proven his fitness following a groin injury. His veteran new-ball partnership with Morne Morkel could prove vital in setting the tone for the series, especially if South Africa bowl first on a traditional Kingsmead mamba. But with strong hints from Hashim Amla that they will find room for a spinner come what may, it seems Dane Piedt will play in place of either Kyle Abbott or, more likely, Kagiso Rabada, whose tearaway speed may have to wait for an opening later in the series. Not content with being his team's go-to batsman, AB de Villiers will reclaim the wicketkeeping duties from the out-of-form Dane Vilas.
South Africa (probable) 1 Stiaan van Zyl, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Faf du Plessis, 5 AB de Villiers (wk), 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Dale Steyn, 9 Dane Piedt, 10 Kyle Abbott, 11 Morne Morkel.
Pitch and conditions
The Durban pitch, last used for a limited-overs game against New Zealand in August, is hard and dry. There is a drought in Durban and a very hot sun could cause it to break up a little - if not overmuch - leaving South Africa agonising over whether to field a spinner. The groundstaff are confident in the surface, however, even suggesting it could be a draw. England think the pitch is a bit patchy, leaving Stuart Broad anxious to bowl from the Umgeni End where he thinks he might be at his most demanding.
Stats and trivia
In four series in South Africa since their readmission to Test cricket, England have won one, lost two and draw one, their most recent tour in 2009-10. Overall, England have won four of those Tests, lost five and drawn ten.
South Africa's ten-wicket victory over India at Kingsmead in 2013 was their first on the ground in five Tests, following four consecutive defeats against Australia, England, India and Sri Lanka.
Alastair Cook needs 125 runs in the match to overhaul Michael Vaughan's 2002 tally of 1481 and become England's highest Test runscorer in a calendar year
Dale Steyn has taken 46 wickets in 11 Tests against England since his debut at Port Elizabeth in 2004-05. However, his average in those games, 32.63, is more than five runs higher than against any other opponent. He has taken 69 wickets in 14 Tests against Australia at 27.13.
"Dale has got a bit of sideline fever and he is ready to go - you can just see the venom he has been bowling with in the nets today and it's exciting."
Morne Morkel senses that Dale Steyn is ready for the fray.
"It's always a concern if your leading bowler or leading batter misses a game, but the last time Jimmy missed one we did pretty well so you never know."
Trevor Bayliss, England's head coach, recalls how Stuart Broad destroyed Australia at Trent Bridge without Anderson in tow.