Some people would say that the toughest job in sport is the captain of the England cricket team. And they are probably right. Since Mike Brearley retired in 1981 fourteen men have been appointed England captain* and on Thursday Joe Root will become number fifteen. In 36 years! For comparison there have been fourteen different UK Prime Ministers since the war! The nadir was reached in 1988 when England had four captains in six Tests that summer. No doubt about it this job does not have long term security. Even in recent years the captain tends to have a shelf life of four or five years before the pressure of the job gets to them and they end up as broken men as anyone that saw former captain Alistair Cook on last year’s tour of India will testify.
So how will Joe Root fare? The fixture list has not helped him. In a normal summer the weakest of the two touring teams (this year West Indies) would have toured first in May/June and the stronger team (this year South Africa) would have toured in July/August. But because England hosted the Champions Trophy in June this year the fixture list has been reversed with South Africa touring first – still in July/August – while West Indies have been moved to August/September. So instead of the luxury of a debut against a poor West Indies team he has been plunged into a tough debut series against South Africa.
South Africa are so tough that the last three times they have been here the England captaincy has either changed hands mid series (2003 and 2008) or immediately after the series (2012). At least we know this won’t happen this time – Root has only just been appointed so he won’t be removed after four Tests regardless of what happens – but only an Ashes series or a tour of India could have offered a tougher debut.
The remarkable thing about South Africa is they will be without argubaly their best batsman – AB de Villiers – and their best fast bowler – Dale Steyn. Had one been told a year ago that South Africa would be without these players one would have anticipated an easy win for England. But it won’t be. This past winter South Africa won 2-1 in Australia, 1-0 in New Zealand and whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 at home to climb to number 2 in the World Test rankings. De Villiers did not play in one of those nine Tests and Steyn only one – and he broke down after two days in that match. The fact is South Africa have moved on from the Steyn/de Villiers era.
Their strength is still the pace bowling. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were key parts of the team who won in 2012 to which can be added the best young fast bowler in the world today Kagiso Rabada and another youngster in Duanne Olivier. They also have the best counter attacking wicket keeper batsman in the world in Quinton de Kock – who is as dangerous coming in at 80 for 5 as 300 for 5 – a promising spinner in Keshav Maharaj who was their leading wicket taker in the New Zealand series and who could make England pay if they fall into the trap of underestimating him – easy to do as he will seem like light relief after the fast bowlers. And another strength is Faf du Plessis’ captaincy which is so impressive that South African fans wanted him to stay captain even if previous captain de Villiers was fit and available.
But there are weaknesses too and I think South Africa’s batting could be vulnerable. Only Hashim Amla of South Africa’s top seven batsmen has played Test cricket in England before – even captain du Plessis hasn’t. Plus they have never really replaced former captain Graeme Smith in the opening position. Dean Elgar is a solid opener but they have struggled to find a partner for him. Stephen Cook has been dropped and Elgar’s new partner will either be a debutant (Heino Kuhn or Andre Markham) or a player with only one unsuccessful Test (Theunis De Bruyn). Add to that Duminy and Temba Bavuma could be vulnerable at no 4 and 5 respectively and there is plenty of hope for the England bowlers.
But England have their problems too. One good thing to come out of a dreadful tour of India was that England had appeared to solve their opening batting problems with the emergence of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings. Unfortunately Haseeb has had such a nightmare season so far that he has not scored a first class fifty for Lancashire never mind a hundred. Unsurprisingly he has not been picked but I’m surprised that the selectors have recalled Gary Ballance who has been picked and dropped twice in three years and is in danger of being this era’s answer to Grahame Hick or Mark Ramprakash. Yes he is averaging 100 for Yorkshire but has he sorted out his technical flaws? We’ll only find out when he steps back into the Test arena…
But the main worry for England is their pace bowlers – or rather their fitness (or lack thereof). James Anderson and Stuart Broad have missed parts of the season, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball are out, Mark Wood is fit at the moment but cannot be relied upon to last a full series and all rounder Ben Stokes is struggling with a knee injury which only affects him when he is bowling apparently. Because of these injuries England are likely to go in with four pace bowlers plus Stokes which is really too many but the selectors are probably thinking that if we play five pace bowlers at least three of them should last the game! As for spin Liam Dawson is a depressing safety first selection when they should have kept faith with Adil Rashid or more bravely picked Hampshire youngster Mason Crane who got AB de Villiers out in the recent T20 series between the countries.
Both teams are not going into this match in great form. England had a nightmare tour of India and have only won three of their last twelve Tests while South Africa might be undercooked having had only one (rain affected) first class warn up match plus captain du Plessis might not make it back to the UK on time to play in the first Test because of the difficult birth of his first child back in South Africa.
This series could go either way. But in English conditions I would say England’s batting line up might be marginally less incompetent than South Africa’s. England have already beaten South Africa 2-1 in both 50 over and 20 over series this summer. It would not surprise me if England completed a hat trick of 2-1 wins in a hard fought series that would mean England’s new “Root” in Test cricket gets off to a good start…
*I have not counted Allan Lamb or Andrew Flintoff in the number of England captains as although both did the job they were never officially appointed as England captain. Both only captained when the appointed captain (Graham Gooch for Lamb, Michael Vaughan for Flintoff) were injured.