Monday, July 07, 2008

England v South Africa

These always seem to be fairly tasty series. The two teams are pretty evenly matched in terms of talent - one point separates them in the table - with neither being able consistently to dominate the other. South Africa are arriving as a fairly settled outfit, and one that will be based on deep fast bowling reserves with Dale Steyn, Andre Nel, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini to choose from.
England are probably going to be outgunned in the pace department - their quickest bowlers, Anderson and Broad are upper 80s bowlers whereas Steyn hits the mid 90s, with Morkel not far behind. This might not matter so much at Lords, especially if the weather continues as gloomy and overcast as it has recently. The control and swing offered by Sidebottom, as well as the pace and swing of Anderson should be equal to the skid and bounce that the South Africans have to offer. If, however, the weather improves and the pitches harden, England should be reconsidering their options. Anderson in particular should be vulnerable - when the ball stops swinging he can look like cannon fodder.
So, any new faces? Almost certainly not. In fact, there are three possible alternatives in the fast bowling department for England, and you'll have met all of them before.
1. Andrew Flintoff.
He's quick, accurate and aggressive - just the sort to keep an end tied up while wickets fall at the other end. He's also excellent at reverse-swing, and good at rushing through the tail. He has, of course, been injured, and is only just getting back into the swing of things. His batting, a half-century against Sussex notwithstanding, has been very poor this season and there is no way he can play at number six. On the other hand, can he really be trusted to take on the 20 overs a day workload of a frontline bowler? If Flintoff does play, it should be at eight, with Ambrose at seven - and that means that a frontline batsman is going to have to produce regular overs, whether that's Pieterson, Collingwood, or someone like Bopara is open to question.
2. Steven Harmison.
OK, I know that he's woefully inconsistent, I know that he has a tendency to bowl half-trackers at 70mph, I know that he can't bat or field. Big Steve Harmison still has the capacity to bowl at mid 90s from his 6'5 - and get top quality batsman out. If England are blown away by pace in the first games, then a recall for Harmy is not out of the question. It's nice to feel that you have some artillery to reply with.
3. Simon Jones.
Another blast from the past, only this time a comeback from horrific physical injury, rather than mental heeby-jeebies. Jones is back, bowling fast, swinging it late, and taking stacks of wickets for Worcestershire. He's not actually as quick as Harmison, but his full length and late swing make him just as hard to play. He'll probably only make it into the side if someone gets injured, but if he gets a chance, I'd expect him to grab it.
The batting for England looks settled. That's not necessarily a good thing. The top six have been underperforming for a while, and there needs to be definite improvement in this series.
Strauss: At the very top Strauss now looks secure - a mental break before the New Zealand series has seen him rediscover his natural role in the side - the opening accumulator. It's not his job to be Marcus Trescothick, and he looks much better for having realised it.
Cook: Slightly difficult times for Alistair Cook, the first he's experienced. His difficulties look a bit more technical - he's playing away from his body, and well in front of his eyes. That said, there's not yet a heap of replacements for the openers...
Vaughan: Injury's the doubt here. His captaincy is still good, and his batting reaches the sublime - sometimes. But that knee isn't looking so stable... Strauss should replace him as skipper if it does go.
Pieterson: Looks like he needs to rediscover some of the joy of batting - but should be energised by playing in a Test series against South Africa. An automatic selection, as England's best batsman.
Bell: At some point he's going to have to start regularly converting those pretty forties into serious hundreds. It's infuriating that he throws away promising starts so often. Selectorial patience must be getting a bit stretched.
Collingwood: Vulnerable I'd say. He's looked in terrible nick this summer, shuffling across the crease a lot. He may as well cut his left hand off for all the good it does his stroke play. On form though, he's an ideal number 6. He sticks around with the tail, and can accelerate when needed. Out of form...?
Ambrose: He'd just better play his Test game, not his one day game - because there are a lot of options for wicket keeper. Matt Prior, James Foster, Steven Davies, Phil Mustard - it's a long list...
You would, of course, have to be a mug to make definite predictions on a series that is so often so close. South Africa, on paper, look stronger, especially in the bowling department (though England have undoubtedly the better spinner), but then they have always had problems in closing series down. On balance, I'll go for a drawn series (cop-out though it is). I'd pick the weather to win at least two of the games, and for the two teams to share the other two. Oh, and why the hell isn't this a five match series?



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