Hands up who didn’t see this coming. Days out from the start of England’s tour, South Africa were in disarray on and off the field. England had been beaten in New Zealand, but showed signs of promise in Hamilton, where the captain scored a double-hundred before the pitch and weather defeated everyone. Their next engagement, on pitches that would ease their issues with the Kookaburra, was talked up as an ideal opportunity against a fallen giant. But within days of arriving, it was mainly the hotel toilets that were engaged.
South Africa, meanwhile, delved into the Hollywood playbook. For Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Statham in The Expendables, read Smith, Boucher and Kallis, as CSA packed the changing room with as many heavyweights as they could muster. Immediately, there was a sense that South Africa might be box office again and in Centurion, the likes of Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada showed that the hosts retain significant star wattage.
This was, of course, just one Test victory – but it had been a long wait for Faf du Plessis and his men, stretching back to January 2019 and covering a run of five consecutive defeats against Sri Lanka and India. England might have lived up to their billing as sickly Lions, with the number of personnel affected by the Benoni bug reaching double-figures as the Test wore on, but South Africa showed resilience in recovering from 111 for 5 on the first day and then sufficient sharpness to twice knock England over from good positions.
Most pleasing, perhaps, for Graeme Smith (an “expendable” director of cricket signed up for only three months) and Mark Boucher (who is hoping for several sequels as head coach), were a number of encouraging contributions from the new cohort. Anrich Nortje brought 150kph pace in his first home Test, as well as a doughty showing as nightwatchman; Rassie van der Dussen top-scored in South Africa’s second innings, while fellow debutant Dwaine Pretorius made important contributions with bat and ball.
The old salts in charge will also doubtless note that they were done a favour at the toss – Smith could barely contain his glee last when interviewed by Sky Sports on the second day – and will know from previous experience during a number of memorable tussles during the 2000s and 2010s that England will be aiming to bounce back hard over the next three Tests.
The tourists’ task ought to be a more straightforward one in Cape Town, provided they have finally left the lurgy behind. England showed guts in Centurion (probably more than they wanted to), with their efforts in the fourth innings worth particular praise – even if another collapse eventually left them well short of another miracle chase. A first-innings 181 was ultimately costly, never mind Root’s opting to bowl first (and therefore bat last) on a surface famed for its qualities of deterioration.
Newlands was the only venue to serve up a draw on England’s last tour – Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and all that – and conditions are again likely to be a little more hospitable down on the coast. The major question for England remains the make-up of the bowling attack, with Dom Bess favoured to return for his first Test since 2018 with a hop and a skip, having not been selected in the original touring party. The inclusion of a spinner could mean a tricky choice over who to leave out, though with questions over Jofra Archer’s fitness selection might be simpler than envisaged.
Victory at Centurion gave South Africa their first World Test Championship points, and matching that result in Cape Town would see them move above England, though both are some way off the pace set by India and Australia. For now, process is as important as results. New Year at Newlands and the start of a new decade. But can these two teams produce some more of the same old drama?
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WLLLL
In the spotlight
Having signalled his intention to retire at the end of the series, Vernon Philander set about proving just how much South Africa will miss him. With innings of 35 and 46, either side of a pivotal 4 for 16 as England crumbled in the face of his exacting line and treacherous wobble, he managed 80-plus runs and four wickets in the same Test for only the fifth time in his career. Despite perennial concerns over his fitness, he looked as trim as he has in a long while, too. Next up, a Test swansong at Newlands, scene of Philander’s debut in 2011 and where he has a formidable record of 51 wickets at 17.60.
From an embarrassment of riches to, well, certainly not an embarrassment, but an area of some head-scratching. England’s wicketkeeper in possession is currently Jos Buttler, though he admits he has not been up to standard recently, and that is before being asked to retake the gloves. With one hundred and an average of 33.00 from 38 Tests, it is clear Buttler is still working out his method – his average while keeping is even more modest at just 29.51, though having returned to the side last year as a specialist batsman, clearly he should be given time to adjust. This series could be pivotal. Jonny Bairstow (and presumably Ben Foakes) will be looking on with interest.
Aiden Markram’s finger injury has ruled him out of the series, with Pieter Malan set to become the eighth South African debutant in their last five Tests. Temba Bavuma has been passed fit but is kept out of the side by van der Dussen, which also contributes to leaving South Africa short of their transformation target for the second match running.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Pieter Malan, 3 Zubayr Hamza, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Dwaine Pretorius, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Anrich Nortje
An elbow problem has limited Archer’s ability to train. He has been for a scan, with England waiting on the results, but he seems likeliest to make way if England, as expected, deploy a spinner. Jack Leach remains unavailable due to sickness, with Somerset team-mate Bess again set to profit (his debut came after Leach broke a thumb) in preference to the raw legspinner Matt Parkinson. Ollie Pope, a day after turning 22, seems likely to return after Bairstow made 9 and 1 in Centurion.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Jofra Archer/Dom Bess, 10 James Anderson, 11 Stuart Broad
Pitch and conditions
This will be the first Test surface prepared by the new groundsman at Newlands, and there have been suggestions that CSA would like gate receipts on all five days of the match. England will remember how snooze-worthy the surface was on their last visit (even if a couple of them had a lot of fun), as the teams piled up 1415 at a cost of 19 wickets, but recent encounters in Cape Town have been livelier – sandpaper aside – and there could be also be some assistance for the spinners, particularly if the sun stays out.
Stats and trivia
Since that 2016 draw, South Africa have won their last four Tests at Newlands by pretty comprehensive margins: 282 runs, 72 runs, 322 runs and nine wickets.
Rory Burns needs 21 runs to become the first England opener since Alastair Cook (in 2007) to reach the 1000-run mark in Tests.
Rabada is 10 shy of becoming the eighth South African to 200 Test wickets.
“I am expecting a big comeback from them. It’s the ground where the last time they came here, they did well. This Test match is going to be the most important for us this series. We expect them to come hard. They are a very strong Test team and they are hungry to put in performances.”
Du Plessis prepares for the England backlash
“For a long period of the game we actually played fast-forward cricket, if you like. Things seemed to happen a million miles an hour and we sort of went away from how we wanted to go about it. If we find ourselves in those situations again, it’s learning from it. Being able to just slow things down, have real clarity about how we want to go about things.”
Root wants his players to stick to the new blueprint