Six months into the year and England are yet to play a Test match. Of course, this is due to the extensive preparation for the Champions Trophy and the fact that England racked up a remarkable 17 Tests in 2016. Not to worry, the administrators have still managed to pack 11 Tests into the second half of the year.
England’s Test side has certainly stagnated over the past 18 months. A hectic schedule of seven Tests in eight weeks, all in the subcontinent, was never going to end well for England as they lost five of the seven. Now, Joe Root’s long wait to deputise as captain will come to an end this week at Lord’s.
Now the Champions Trophy has come and gone, all eyes turn to Joe Root to see how England will look under his leadership. The 26-year-old was always the natural successor to Cook, but that does not mean he will be a natural leader. It’s almost expected for runs and results to come in heaps for a new captain nowadays; and a weakened South Africa side, followed by an altogether weak West Indies may present the ideal start for Joe Root.
But South Africa are still a dangerous outfit, even without Dale Steyn and AB Devilliers. Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel have 414 Test wickets between them and Kagiso Rabada is set to be the number one seamer in the world one day. More so, Dean Elgar has filled Graeme Smith’s shoes brilliantly, and Hashim Amla scored 482 runs during the 2012 series.
The tourists will be buoyed by the fact that they have won their last two series’ in England (2008 & 2012) and have not lost a series since 1998. The Proteas have won their last four Test series’ ever since England beat them back in 2015/16. Furthermore, England lost all four Tests in London against Pakistan and Australia during the past two years and will play two of the four matches in the capital yet again.
Squad (First Test): A. Cook, K. Jennings, G. Ballance, J. Root (c), J. Bairstow (wk), B. Stokes, M. Ali, T. Roland-Jones, S. Broad, M. Wood, J. Anderson, L. Dawson.
A new captain has not brought new problems for England. The batting order is far from settled as three spaces are without long-term owners. England are fortunate in a way that the rest of the side picks itself.
Alastair Cook will not have a 12th opening partner in under five years as Keaton Jennings has been trusted to continue in the job. Even though Jennings is Cook’s current partner, most would have expected Haseeb Hameed to return to the side after his tour of India came to an early end due to a broken thumb. But a horror run of form in the Championship (214 runs at 19.45) has given the selectors no option but to drop the youngster.
Gary Ballance’s Championship form (815 runs at 101.87) has earned the 27-year-old a recall after being dropped twice already in his international career. Joe Root, who favoured a recall for Ballance, is likely to return to his preferred batting position of number four – although Ballance did bat at four last week for the Lions against South Africa if that is anything to go by.
There is reason to keep Root at three given Vernon Philander’s impeccable record against left-handers – he dismissed Alastair Cook three times during the 2012 series.
Arguably, the most controversial selection was that of Toby Roland-Jones. The Middlesex seamer has a fine record in county cricket and no bowler has more wickets from the start of last season (76). However, his inclusion means England will play five seamers, something they have not done in a home Test since 1993. Many believe that five seamers are not needed in England and the reason behind the selection is due to the recent injury records of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, and Ben Stokes. This could be seen as a negative start to what is promised to be a dynamic, attacking new era under Joe Root.
Squad: D. Elgar, H. Kuhn, H. Amla, JP. Duminy, F. Du Plessis, T. Bavuma, Q. De Kock, K. Maharaj, V. Philander, K. Rabada, M. Morkel, T. De Bruyn, C. Morris, A. Phehlukwayo, D. Olivier, A, Markram.
South Africa have been dealt a huge blow on the eve of the First Test after learning that Francois Du Plessis will not be leading out his team after his wife suffered a difficult birth of their first child. It is a valuable loss of experience as only four members of South Africa’s squad have played a Test in England before (although Du Plessis is not one of them).
The Proteas’ batting line-up looks like it could be exposed if Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, and Du Plessis fail to go big. However, they will be comforted by having Quinton De Kock in their armoury if they do lay a solid foundation, despite him having a quiet time of it so far in England during the white-ball series’ and the Champions Trophy.
South Africa possess a potentially lethal seam attack but will be concerned about the work rate of Morkel and Philander during the four-match series given their recent injury records. The Proteas may be tempted to employ the same method as England and select Chris Morris in Du Plessis’s place in order to provide another bowling option.
South Africa will provide Joe Root and England with a stern test but over the course of four matches, I expect England to emerge as 2-1 winners. A draw will likely occur from the weather, I don’t expect any Test to go the distance otherwise.