The long-awaited first Test between England and South Africa begins on Thursday at Lord’s, making this comfortably the latest start to a Test summer in living memory. When play gets underway would be forgiven for wondering why the ball is red and the players’ kits so plain, given the huge amount of limited overs cricket we’ve already seen this summer. Another unusual feature of this summer’s cricket is that the better side are touring first – West Indies will play three Tests in August and September, including the first ever day/night test to be hosted in England.
Where to begin with England? More than 6 months have passed and 21 LOIs have been played since they were pummelled by an innings in Chennai, an unusually long clear spell for this overworked side. They will arrive at Lord’s with a new captain and question marks hanging over more than half a side.
This must have been the most difficult meeting for the selectors since the Ashes debacle if 2013-14, with many places up for grabs due to poor form and injury, and with an Ashes tour looming large this is an opportunity for a number of players to nail down their places in the side. Alastair Cook has been in sparkling form for Essex as he prepares for his first Test since quitting as captain after the India tour. He is joined at the top of the order by Keaton Jennings, whose century on debut in Mumbai sees him retain his place. Haseeb Hameed misses out, having not passed 50 all summer.
There is a return for Gary Ballance to the number 3 spot. His sparkling form in the County Championship – 815 runs, averaging over 100 – has forced the selectors’ hand, though he can consider himself fortunate to have earned a second recall to the side. There was some speculation that Surrey’s Mark Stoneman might get a place, but he misses out this time.
One of the big talking points going into this summer is how Joe Root will deal with captaincy. Promoted to the role earlier than possibly England would have liked, he will be expected to lead the side and continue his excellent Test batting record. The next three months will be crucial for him as he prepares to defend the Ashes this winter.
The big question mark is at number 8 – this will either be occupied by all-rounder Liam Dawson, or Middlesex seamer Toby Roland-Jones. Dawson is a somewhat controversial selection, having put in unremarkable red-ball performances for Hampshire through 2016 and the summer so far. Adil Rashid can consider himself unfortunate to be bumped down the pecking order. Roland-Jones, meanwhile, has been a consistent performer with county champions Middlesex for some time, and home advantage may well see him get the nod to make his debut, though it would leave England’s tail looking a little long.
Positions 9 to 11 will be filled by Mark Wood and veteran duo Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Wood has performed well for England so far this summer, while Broad and Anderson have overcome injury scares and are expected to be ready for Lord’s. Jake Ball and Chris Woakes miss out through injury.
South Africa have a habit of disposing of England captains – Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss all quit during or after the Proteas’ visit. Cook has taken preemptive action to prevent himself suffering the same fate, and it would take something catastrophic for Joe Root to be deposed so soon. They arrive at Lord’s with plenty of selection question marks of their own.
With AB de Villiers missing this series through injury – and most likely all future series through retirement – South Africa have a big hole to fill in their batting line up. It’s also possible that captain Faf du Plessis will miss the first Test after the ‘difficult birth’ of his child. In this case, Dean Elgar would take over the captaincy. Wicketkeeper-batsman Heino Kuhn is expected to make his Test debut at the age of 33 at the top of the order with Elgar. The position vacated by du Plessis looks likely to be filled by Theunis de Bruyn, who would be making his second Test match appearance. A lot of pressure will be on the shoulders of the middle order triumvirate of Amla, Duminy and Bavuma, while Quinton de Kock will provide firepower at 7.
Some good news for the visitors is that Vernon Philander has been passed fit, allowing them to field a full-strength seam attack (in the absence of Dale Steyn) of Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel. This means that Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo will have to wait their turn. Keshav Maharaj will provide the spin option on the back of 15 wickets in three Tests in the recent tour of New Zealand.
Ironically, two of the most in-form South African bowlers are plying their trade for county sides this summer – Kyle Abbott and Simon Harmer have been in excellent form for Hampshire and Essex respectively, the latter taking a stunning 9-fer in their recent game against Middlesex. Rilee Roussow also made himself unavailable for international selection by signing with Hampshire, though his record this summer has been somewhat less impressive. The Kolpak issue will continue to be a concern for South Africa as the UK’s exit from the EU draws ever closer.
Lord’s plays host to the first of four Test matches between these sides, and a good batting wicket is expected. Hopefully we’ll see more of the drone pitch map innovation that was brought in during the recent ICC Champions Trophy. South Africa have an excellent record at the Home of Cricket, winning four of the five Tests held there since they returned to international cricket.