There is nothing unusual in predicting an English victory at home. Since the Australians last won there - more than ten years ago now - the English have lost only twice, to India in 2007 and South Africa in 2008 and both by the squeaky margin on 1-0. That's four years and seven series victories and in the process England has gone to a dominant number one spot in the ICC Team rankings, despite the 3-0 embarrassment against Pakistan in the UAE at the start of the year. England's position, six points clear of a newly promoted Australia in the second spot, is so commanding that South Africa would have to win the series which starts at the Oval by 2-0 or better to knock them off their perch.
That isn't going to happen.
England's build up to what has been billed as the heavy weight clash with South Africa couldn't have been more perfect. After the Pakistan disaster when her batsmen seemed to stay in or leave the crease with confidence and well short of a gallop, they came from behind to draw a series in Sri Lanka and in the early summer walloped an improving West Indies team. In the process took apart their rival's most promising batsmen, Kirk Edwards and Darren Bravo with outstanding pace bowling as a pack. Test cricket hasn't seen a side consistently do that since the West Indies machines of the 1980's. Add to that their systematic dismantling of the Australians in the Natwest Series - the number one ODI side in world cricket - and confidence couldn't be much higher in the English camp.
They arrive at Lords with 13 who are all in peak form. The batting has one change from the Windies series, with Ravi Bopara winning Jonny Bairstow's place after the youngster was given his shot against the men from the Caribbean and came up short ... for the moment. Bopara couldn't be in sharper form to bat at No 6 and the six batsmen around him have all made runs in this very wet English summer. The selectors have six quality bowlers to pick four from, but with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann choosing themselves for at least the next two years, the battle is over the fourth seamers spot. Tim Bresnan is the worthy incumbent but Steve Finn and Graeme Onions have both bowled well since the Windies series finished. With Bresnan in the side, England bat down to 10 but Finn might be the bloke to unsettled the South Africans. The question is, do you need two of your three quicks doing the mongrel work, as Broad already covers this material.
However the choice goes, its decades since England has been spoiled with such choice.
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The most telling damage to them winning a series which is two Tests too short for a contest of such importance, has been the amount of warm up matches. South Africa haven't played any international cricket since their triple format series against New Zealand in February/March and even given that many of her players were involved with the IPL in April and May, the squad could have been in England for a month before the Basil d'Oliveria Trophy series began and played six or seven games before The Oval. Instead, we will again have a series starting in either England or Australia (who invented this clever itinerary trick) which is heavily in favour of the home side simply because its players have been playing cricket whilst the opposition are in training camps and playing Mickey Mouse, second rate teams before the real contest hits them full in the face.
The psychological damage from those two games against Somerset and Kent, both teams deep in the English 2nd Division, lies in the inability of the South African bowlers to assert themselves. The batting of both county teams has been suspect and yet the both scored more than adequately against South Africa's best. Hildredth and Trego made quick and dismissive hundreds for Somerset and Northeast and Bell-Drummond added an unbeaten century opening stand at five an over in the Kent's second innings. Hasim Amla, Jacques Kallis and JP Duminy have been convincing with the bat, whilst Smith and AB deVilliers - captain and vice captain - have not. In England, where the ball stays lower, Smith's inside edging habit may prove even more fatal.
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South Africa go into this 1st Test with all the disadvantages and its hard to see anything other than an English victory unless weather plays a significant part. With thunderstorms and showers predicted for the first two days, the cricket gods might yet even this series by taking the first Test out of Andrew Strauss' grasp. It's Graeme Smith's best hope and the chance for his players to find confidence and form in the two weeks between Tests.