Given that the stormy weather has dashed hopes of cricket being played in Oxford so far this term, our attention can turn to England’s upcoming season. The main event is surely the three Test Series against South Africa, which begins on July 19th at the Oval.
England struggled in Asia this winter, losing 3-0 in the Test Series with Pakistan in the UAE. Most worrying of all, the previously infallible top six struggled, with no batsman reaching three figures. Matters improved upon winning the One Day Series and the Twenty20, and normal service was resumed in beating Sri Lanka by eight wickets in Colombo last month.
Before South Africa arrive however, England face three Tests against the West Indies, starting at Lords on May 17th. This will be no walk in the park for Andrew Strauss’ men, with West Indian lynchpin Shivnarine Chanderpaul a thorn in the side of any bowling attack. Currently top of the ICC Test Batting Rankings, Chanderpaul will be looking to find the form he enjoyed in England in the summer of 2007, when he averaged almost 150 with the bat. However, England should have the class and quality to win, and win comfortably, with the fearsome bowling attack of Darren Sammy’s men no more. Gone are the days of Holding and Marshall or Ambrose and Walsh, and England’s batsmen should be able to make hay given that the West Indian conveyor belt of top-class fast bowlers appears to have ground to a halt.
It’s vitally important that the England batsmen regain their form, as South Africa represent a completely different challenge. The fine form of England’s top five propelled the side to reach the summit of the ICC World Rankings, and more of the same will be required to defeat a very strong South Africa side. Strauss’s year-long run drought, stretching back to the Brisbane test of 2010 without a century, is worrisome. If England are to defeat South Africa and retain top spot, they need a captain that is confident, scoring runs and not worrying about his own game.
More importantly, it is not only Strauss that has been struggling. In previous years, the run-scoring of Cook and Trott has been constant, occupying the crease and making opposition bowlers toil for hours, even days at a time, aided by Pietersen’s ability to take an attack to pieces, Bell’s class and elegance and Prior’s dynamism down the order. If they are going to blunt the threat of the leading bowler in test cricket, Dale Steyn, and his accomplices Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, the England batting line-up will have to be firing on all cylinders. In terms of batting, A.B. de Villiers, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla are all class acts. James Anderson, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, backed up by either Tim Bresnan or Chris Tremlett will have their work cut out. It would be foolish to take the South Africans lightly, with Graeme Smith’s double-centuries in consecutive tests back in 2003. This is not to forget the two England captain’s scalps he’s taken on tours here, food for thought for the English attack.
With over two months until the Test series starts, trying to pick a winner is extremely difficult. What is certain, though, is that the South Africans will prove a sterner test than this England side has yet had to face up to. Sparks will fly.