The last time England played South Africa in a test series, Joe Root was a mere name who had a good time in a wet English summer, Jos Buttler only some Somerset Wicketkeeper who could give it a smack - no big deal, Andrew Strauss was England's Captain, Jonathan Trott was England's wall, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell the pillars of the famous English middle-order, Matt Prior the best wicketkeeper batsman in tests and Graeme Swann the leading off-spinner in the world. Few years later, Root and Buttler sit comfortably as two of the most feared batsmen in world Cricket, while the rest of them are all long gone - some retired and some "sacked".
Even South Africa have had their fair share of retirements with Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith "the past" of Cricket South Africa now. India 3 - 0 South Africa is the present, but whether or not does that score line tell anything about either side is an interesting question. Anyways, more interesting is the upcoming test series, which begins with the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead in Durban as Alastair Cook’s England prepare for their toughest test yet.
The Proteas may be going through a rough period currently, having just got smacked at the hands of India, but they are not the ones to sit back quietly and let themselves be tormented by another side that is under a transitional phase as well and in search of some glory. South Africa at home are a massive threat, no matter how poor a phase they are in, and the same will reflect in their game, as and when the series begins. Of course, they won’t be as lethal as they used to be under Graeme Smith, but the hunger is as high as it ever has been.
Thankfully, England have already made a fine start to the tour with an inning defeat of South Africa A - which is just the beginning they’d have hoped for - and in the process bringing back the memories of the 2010/11 tour to Australia when the tour matches were where the foundations of a 3-1 Ashes win were laid. Will the follow-up action be the same as it was back then? Well, it largely depends on how much have Cook and his boys worked on their weak areas – the top order, “Jos Buttler” and the inability to deliver a killer blow. Will Alex Hales be the opener England need? Will Jos Buttler finally get his test career going? Will England finally show some maturity under pressure, and when they themselves are on top? All these questions will need an positive answer to, if England are to secure a series win in South Africa, indeed, the tone for which must be set at Kingsmead.
Alex Hales still appears shaky and nervy and has been bowled twice leaving the ball which basically means he isn’t quite ready but as England have confirmed him as the opener already, Nick Compton emerges as the automatic choice for the no. 3 spot. Joe Root, James Taylor, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali should complete the rest of the batting order while Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are almost inevitably going to be the three seamers. Needless to mention England will miss James Anderson, but it’ll be exciting to see how do they cope without him.
It’s dry and does have a few patches, albeit with a bit of green still there to assist the seamers. Even better for batting, though, and the heat is sure to cause the bowlers some problems.
"I think anyone who's seen practice over the last 24 hours will have seen we've concentrated mainly on the 11 so it's no surprise really," Cook said of the 26-year-old Woakes’ selection.
"What an opportunity it is for him to play. It gives us great depth in our batting and he's been around the side for a long time and now he's got an opportunity.
"Of course it's a huge loss (Anderson). When you take out (426) wickets and 110 games of experience it's going to be a big loss, of course it is. But we can't do anything about that.
"As always you try to look on the positive side and not let anything get you down really about it. He's more disappointed than anyone else but it gives Chris a great opportunity.
"It's exciting and it's a bit different. Of course you'd love Jimmy to be in the 11 but he's not and so we'll cope with that."