After a promising start to the summer at Lord’s, AOC columnist David Green looks ahead to a mouthwatering England-South Africa series by picking his composite XI from the two best sides in the world.
West Indies were certainly a more competitive and cohesive unit at Lord’s than many had predicted beforehand, and the series at least now promises to be interesting. But in the minds of many it remains an hors d’oeuvre to the sumptuous main course later this summer.
The series with South Africa pits the top two sides in the ICC Test rankings against each other in what should be a much closer contest than the one with India last summer, when the then No.1 side were simply blown away by the unstoppable England juggernaut.
The prospect of these two leviathans battling it out is certainly a mouthwatering one despite the disappointment that the series will be played over three rather than four or, even better, five Tests. Whilst home advantage means England will start slight favourites, one senses that there is only a hair’s breadth between the two. This is borne out by the results of recent England-South Africa series and also when one looks at a composite XI.
Even with Andrew Strauss’ hundred at Lord’s and his superior captaincy skills, it is hard to look beyond an opening partnership of Graeme Smith and Alastair Cook. Smith has scored over 7,000 runs as South African skipper, which is all the more remarkable considering he also opens the batting. He also has an excellent record against England and a worrying – for Strauss at least – ability to end the reigns of long-serving England captains – Nasser Hussain at Edgbaston in 2003 and Michael Vaughan at the same ground five years later.
The middle order is a veritable box of delights. Jonathan Trott may have been a revelation since his Test debut at The Oval in 2009, but even the king of obduracy is no match for the wondrous talent of Hashim Amla, who has a claim to being the best batsman in the world currently. After the bearded wonder, Jacques Kallis and Kevin Pietersen pick themselves. The former is a model of restraint and consistency whilst also being a more than useful fifth bowler. Pietersen is the complete opposite: flashy, unorthodox and with a lust for the limelight. The final batting place comes to a toss-up between A B de Villiers and Ian Bell, with the South African just getting the nod.
The next two choices are much more simple. Mark Boucher is past his best and on the verge of retirement whilst Matt Prior is at the peak of his powers and is head and shoulders the best Test wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. Graeme Swann is just as assured of his place ahead of the Proteas’ adopted spinner Imran Tahir.
That leaves three places for the fast bowlers. Both sides have formidable attacks. Vernon Philander has already taken 51 wickets in his first seven Tests – a quite remarkable feat and one that places him alongside the great fast bowlers of the Victorian age. But yet he still doesn’t make the cut here.
Dale Steyn has a record and strike rate that sets him apart. He is without a doubt the top fast bowler in the world and perhaps the best the game has seen since the days of Malcolm Marshall. Like Steyn, James Anderson has now proved he can make the lives of batsmen a misery in any conditions, which leaves the final place between Morne Morkel and Stuart Broad.
Like Steve Harmison in his heyday, there are times when Morkel can be unplayable – as England found out in Johannesburg in 2010 – but he lacks consistency. Broad on the other hand has made the step up to the top table in the last 12 months. He has taken 51 wickets at 17 in his last nine Tests and averages 33 with the bat in the same time – that is world-class in any estimation.
So, six Englishmen and five South Africans. How this team looks come the end of the summer is any one’s guess, but three titanic Test matches await once the West Indians and Australians have departed.
Click here to read West Indies correspondent Rohan Kallicharan’s views on the state of the England-West Indies series