It’s one of the most historic battles in international cricket. In December, South Africa and England will once again duke it out for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy in a four-test series, sponsored by Sunfoil. The iconic Boxing Day opener at Durban’s Sahara Stadium Kingsmead should set the tone for a rip-roaring contest. While both sides are currently undergoing tough assignments against India and Pakistan respectively, it's likely they’ll feel much more at home in the seam-friendly South African conditions.
The England squad has been announced and the selectors have rung the changes; perhaps the standout of these is the dropping of Ian Bell, who averaged just 20 with the bat in 2015. England will miss his experience – Bell has appeared in 118 tests for his country – and his penchant for scoring runs in Africa, but it was clear from his demeanour in the Pakistan series that the weight of expectation was becoming too much to bear.
This reshuffle is set to offer opportunities for others. Nick Compton, who scored two centuries for England during his stint with the side in 2012/13, is one option to fill Bell’s boots at third in the batting order, while Gary Ballance – who averages 47.76 in tests – is another after a confidence-boosting run in county cricket towards the end of the domestic campaign.
As ever, the Three Lions will look to Joe Root to contribute a wealth of runs to his side’s cause. He is the fourth best batsman in the world according to the ICC Rankings; he’ll benefit from batting at number four, thus being shielded from the Proteas’ deadly new ball attack. At 5/2 with Coral Sports at time of writing, he looks like smart value to back as England’s top batsman.
The seam bowlers tend to dominate in the agreeable South African conditions, so this is an area where England look particularly strong. The injured young pair of Mark Wood and Steven Finn will be missed, but in the two veterans Stuart Broad and James Anderson (who took 16 wickets in his last trip to Africa), the Three Lions can boast two of the very best in the game.
They will be supported by Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and debutant Mark Footitt, though the burden on Moeen Ali to provide valuable spin support has been exacerbated by the absence of Adil Rashid. England seem to have missed the boat here, considering that twirler Graeme Swann was his country’s leading wicket-taker on their last tour to this part of the world. Accordingly, punters should fancy James Anderson as England’s top bowler in the series; priced at 5/2 with Coral Sports, he certainly is tempting value.
South Africa boasts two of the best willow wielders in the world in AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla, but the retirement of a key trio from the last time England toured on their patch will be to the Proteas’ detriment.
Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher contributed more than 1000 runs between them in the four-test series back in 2009/10, so the team will need some new heroes to step up to the plate in Durban. Their struggles in India so far suggest more work is needed; the opening trio of Stiaan Van Zyl, Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis in particular look vulnerable.
But South Africa’s strength is in their pace attack, and in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander they boast three of the world’s best. They will enjoy getting stuck into England’s inexperienced top order – Cook aside. The big question mark is over the fact that they will have only played six test matches in 2015 when England visit – with three of those matches abandoned.
The Three Lions are unbeaten in their last two tours to South Africa, winning the test series 2004/05 and drawing in 2009/10. While the last test in Durban between these sides ended in stalemate with more than 1000 runs scored, England’s price of 23/10 with Ladbrokes Sports to walk away victorious still looks generous indeed.