Monday 30 June 2008

A series for the quicks

As England's one-day side folded all too familiarly I couldn't help but turn my attention to the upcoming Test series against South Africa.

The merits of the shorter game, be it 20 or 50 overs have been trumpeted repeatedly recently. Test cricket though, especially between evenly matched teams presents a different kind of drama.

Without the restrictions on bowlers, field placing and overs for batmen, Test cricket leaves players naked. Every nuance of technique and character is explored. Hoping to triumph for the first time in England since 1965 Graeme Smith brings a buoyant South African side to Lord's next month.

Since re-admission South Africa have never quite managed to assert themselves on the world game. Branded chokers following habitual World Cup semi final losses they have never been a threatening force in Test cricket.

Cautious at best and outright boring at worst, their cricket was too often epitomised by Jacques Kallis. Despite his impressive statistics he has never had the belief to impose himself on oppositions and turn matches. It's a negative outset that for many years held back South African cricket.

But now united under a captain who demands respect without having to shout his mouth off, and free of the shackles of selection quota system, South Africa are playing vibrant cricket.

Dale Steyn has added dynamism to an attack that since Allan Donald's retirement has been little more than steady. How his skiddy pace adapts to English conditions could determine the outcome of the series. When a youthful Brett Lee arrived on these shores to a similar fanfare in 2001, he was taken apart by a hopeless England side.

England, following their hesitant triumph over the three-match series against New Zealand, are being brought nicely to the boil under Michael Vaughan. As always much depends on the fitness of Andrew Flintoff. If fit he lifts England's attack to another level backing up the likes of Ryan Sidebottom, Stuart Broad, Monty Panesar and Mr Mercurial James Anderson.

Abandoning reason and assuming Flintoff does return he magnifies England's biggest concern - their wobbly middle order. If they take the jump and play five bowlers, one of Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell would miss out, and Tim Ambrose's runs will be closely monitored. It places huge responsibility on the top four, but you feel the aggressive approach gives England their best chance and will make for a thrilling series between two strong bowling sides.

Given their recent form South Africa must start favourites, but if England's top order can conquer Steyn then the road for the Ashes may yet be paved with gold.

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