England are playing cricket. What on earth is going to happen?
As eagerly anticipated as the Ashes, England's tour of South Africa sees Kevin Pietersen's return to test cricket, and to South Africa, alongside fellow countryman Jonathan Trott. It sees South Africa bidding to retake the No. 1 ranking having lost it to India in November. It sees Andrew Strauss take on the best opposition of his captaincy.
England play a topsy-turvy game. In the ODI series, we saw that this could mean a 7-wicket win followed by a 100-run defeat. In a test match, all the swings can happen in the one game. In 2009, we've seen England bat scores of 600 and be dismissed for 52. They've bowled Australia out for 160 and let the West Indies rack up 700. You never know what you're going to get with England, and while agonizing for the Barmy Army, it always provides entertainment to the neutrals.
England's bowling attack has performed well this year, but is still missing that one danger- man. I don't know who he is, because he might not exist. They don't have a Dale Steyn, a Brett Lee, a Fidel Edwards. They don't have that man who will make even the best batsmen quake in the first 15 overs. James Anderson is a very good bowler, and can bowl excellent economic spells. He can take wickets, and is a decent leader of the attack. But he's a fast-medium bowler. As is Stuart Broad. As is Graham Onions. Broad can bowl great spells - we saw that at the Oval this August - but he's not a man you want running in and bouncing short balls at the batsmen. He'll be taken apart. Sajid Mahmood was included in the ODI squad - maybe he needs to be worked on to become a test bowler - he has genuine pace.
England's bowlers, I have no doubt, will take wickets in this series, and will bowl good spells, but you just get the feeling that if Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers are on a 100-run partnership and facing Broad and Wright that they'll take them to town.
What of the batsmen? On paper, Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior, Wright, Broad, Swann - it's a good, strong, long batting line-up. But I predict - and it's a nasty prediction - that if England bat 8 innings this tour, Cook will be dismissed for less than 15 in at least three of them. In which case, Trott is your opener - maybe he can deal with it, but it's a different role.
KP will deliver some fine innings in the series, but he's still making his first test appearance in some time, and every bowler in the South African team wants his scalp more than anyone else's. It's vital that Strauss does what he did in the Ashes and leads from the front - England more than any other team take such great heart from his good starts, and you get the feeling that he's going to need a few tons if England are to have a chance of victory.
I can't get past the belief that Luke Wright is a major weak link - if the team's on a score of 350 when he comes in he might well make a quick 30 or 40 runs to boost the total, but he's not the man to rescue you when you're in trouble - in England are languishing on 180-4/5 you need a guy who can steady things down and bat through a session. Wright isn't that player. He's shown promise in the shorter format but I just don't think he's ready for Test - I think his batting will be exposed and his bowling preyed upon.
South Africa have had good news in that Jacques Kallis will play in the opening test. However, his role will be limited to batting, and the Proteas arguably would miss his prowess with the ball to a greater extent. In the same way that Collingwood will temper the English attack with economical and often wicket-taking spells, so Kallis steadies the South Africans. Steyn and Morkel will power in and deliver some frightening pace to the English, but if they start to go awry the English batsmen can fill their boots, and you need a miserly bowler to dry up the runs. Without Kallis, the South African bowlers could be either brilliant or distinctly lacking, and hopefully we'll see the big man fully fit in time for the second match.
South Africa's batting is superb - Ashwell Prince makes a return to the team for the Centurion match to open alongside the simply awesome Graeme Smith - those two are well capable of setting up a score of 280-0. Add AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Mark Boucher to the team and you just sigh with pleasure.
Makhaya Ntini returns to make his 100th Test appearance for the home team, and perhaps he can keep the runs away from Cook long enough to pressure him into falling to Steyn at the other end.
England are unpredictable. So, in a way, are South Africa, particularly without Kallis holding the ball. However, I can't see England threatening to take the series, and if they got out of it at 1-1 they'd be over the moon. I'm going to go for a 2-0 win to South Africa over the four games; I think England will bat long enough to draw at least one if not two games, but I think they'll always struggle to take 20 wickets.