The highly anticipated test series between South Africa and England is now a matter of hours away, and the excitement is ratcheting up as we lead up to the moment that Andrew Strauss and Graeme Smith step out for the toss. The match-winning talent spread across the two sides is simply mouth-watering for cricket fans to watch. While all players involved are bound to have a role in the series at sometime or the other, some match-ups are going to be crucial in determining the fate of the series.
South Africa's middle order vs. Anderson and Broad
While Graeme Smith has a phenomenal record in England, he isn't coming into the series in the best of form. In the last few years Smith's footwork has been suspect against quality swing bowling, of which he is going to face a lot during this series. While Smith still has his experience to fall back on, neither Alviro Peterson nor Jacques Rudolph can claim to have faced a new ball pair as potent in English overcast conditions as James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
It's extremely unlikely that any opposing team is going to survive the opening spells of Anderson and Broad without losing a wicket or two. In this scenario, the role of South Africa's middle order is going to be absolutely crucial. Jacques Kallis doesn't have the best record in England, but like a fine wine he just seems to be getting better with age. Kallis is anything but not determined, and he will surely want to retire knowing that England is amongst all the other cricketing frontiers he has conquered.
One common factor between South Africa's recent test victories is that either Hashim Amla or AB De Villiers have played a defining knock in them. They will be expected to reprise their roles in this extremely tough assignment for them.
Anderson's strategy involves pitching the ball up to invite the drive, and either get catches in the slip cordon or find the gap between bat and pad and bowl batsmen out. If Amla makes the right judgement calls, he has the ability to increase the scoring rate with his wristy drives and flicks, and if anything makes Anderson vulnerable, it is when runs are flowing against him. This battle could determine whole sessions in the series.
Broad's ability to mix swing and seam with a variety in bounce has made him an extremely formidable bowler. He has become an expert in understanding and utilizing different conditions to his advantage. While conventional wisdom would dictate that he should consistently pitch the ball up, against Kallis he might be better suited to lift the ball off a shorter length. Kallis' solid footwork put hims in good positions to negate conventional swing, however the rising ball has tended to take him out of the comfort zone. It's going to be great to see who is going to adjust to the challenge better, the great veteran South African all-rounder or the man who is set to take his mantle as the best all-roounder in the game after he retires.
AB De Villiers is extremely comfortable against both swing and bounce, and there is a feeling that to dislodge him England will need a magic delivery or a brutal spell. If De Villiers stays at the crease for a session or two, the odds will tilt heavily in South Africa's favour.
Steyn and Philander vs. Cook and Trott
England just don't lose tests in which Alistair Cook and Jonathan Trott score. Both players have been in tremendous form for the past two years, scoring big and setting the foundations for many huge totals which in turn have been the basis for some huge victories. How they both fare against the best fast bowling attack they will have faced in two years will be a significant indicator of England's totals.
Cook is an opener in the classic sense, whereby he doesn't chase after balls and sometimes can even wait a whole session before gradually building up his strike rate. However, against truly outstanding bowling, Cook can be susceptible to edge anything on or outside off stump. Dale Steyn's natural delivery will swing in to Cook rather than away, so he might face more trouble facing Vernon Philander. If Philander is able to replicate his outstanding ability to pitch the ball in the corridor of uncertainty, then England are going to start their innings in trouble throughout the series.
Trott has scored against all opposition in conditions since his debut, except South Africa. His performance against South Africa in 2009, was the only instance in his impressive career where Trott seemed frazzled and clueless. He is now an even better batsman, and it is extremely unlikely that he will have a lean patch extending through the series. However, with Steyn's pace and Philander's swing alternating ends, Trott could struggle to settle in as easily as he usually does. If Trott does survive the opening salvo's, he can be extremely dangerous, especially because Trott is also an excellent exponent of batting with the tail and eeking out the extra 70 to 100 runs an innings that can make such a big difference in this close contest.
Imran Tahir vs. the English tail
One of the under-rated reasons England are on top of the test match rankings is the runs that are made between positions 7 to 10. Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann have all played some handy knocks in the last two years, that have succeeded in taking the game away from the opposition.
Prior and Broad in particular are extremely effective due to their strike-rate, often completely demoralizing bowling attacks. The one instance where they failed was in the UAE against Pakistan's high quality spin bowling. While Imran Tahir is not in the same league as Saeed Ajmal, his role in these passages will be extremely crucial. For all the brilliance of Steyn and Morkel, they often can hit a brick wall against tail-enders. If Tahir uses his googly deceptively, it's not inconceivable for him to wrap up the tail, especially considering his prior success in English conditions. However, if he fails, it could be the difference between England getting bowled out for 250 or posting totals in the vicinity of 375 to 400.
Graeme Swann vs. JP Duminy and Jacques Rudolph
Swann is the best spinner in test match cricket right now, and if he fires, there is a very good chance England will win the series. While he can struggle to take wickets against right-handers in English conditions, Swann is still very adept at keeping things tight and building up the pressure for his seam bowling colleagues to exploit.
One area where Swann towers over any other spinner is in bowling to left-handers. Due to Mark Boucher's injury, South Africa's lower middle order will have two southpaws - Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy. Duminy's credentials as a test bastman of genuine promise were damaged on England's tour of South Africa in 2009, when Swann seemed to get his wicket at will.
Nowadays Duminy has a more closed stance to ensure there isn't a big gap between bat and pad. However, with Swann's drift taking the ball away from his body, Duminy's wristy shots make him a candidate to be caught at either slip or close-in positions.
Jacques Rudolph has played some gutsy innings since his return to the side, however he isn't necessarily the best player of spin. While his discipline is not in doubt, Rudolph's best strategy might just be to go after Swann aggressively and unsettle his rhythm. If Duminy and Rudolph negate the threat of Swann, it increases the pressure on England's seam bowlers. However, if Swann gets them out, South Africa's long tail will be exposed and the team could suffer from some low totals.