Why England cricket team can upset odds in South Africa

Ben Stokes' recovery adds depths to both the bowling and batting line ups as England face South Africa. Picture: Julian Finney/Getty

Ben Stokes' recovery adds depths to both the bowling and batting line ups as England face South Africa. Picture: Julian Finney/Getty

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Currently England are not a particularly good side. The bowling attack after James Anderson and Stuart Broad can struggle, there is no high-class spinner, questions over the two wicketkeepers and with the reselections of Gary Ballance and Nick Compton there is clearly problems in the top order.

Few coaches would start a tour against the number-one ranked side in the world with much confidence considering the instability of the side but England have an excellent opportunity to actually win in South Africa.

How? Partly it is the feeling that momentum is starting to move with the visitors and Steven Finn’s recovery is the most recent example of that as he may now be available for the first Test. Ben Stokes has recovered well and bowled quickly earlier this week, having plundered a century with the bat, and the general vibe around the squad is of a lighter tone than previously. The dropping of Ian Bell has sent a message to all players that there are opportunities and that in itself can reinvigorate them and create a positive energy that filters through the whole group.

This is in direct contrast to South Africa who have just suffered a 3-0 defeat in India and have major concerns about their seam attack. For the past few years much of South Africa’s success has been based on the triumvirate of seamers, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.

They are all superb bowlers, Steyn clearly the best in the world, but as a group they have been formidable. The problem is Philander is ruled out for the first two matches having damaged his ankle ligaments in a football match and Steyn is recovering from a serious groin injury.

The latest news is he may be fit for the first Test starting on Boxing Day in Durban, but it would be a surprise if he played and even then if he played in all four matches.

There are also queries over the batting. So much depends on captain Hamish Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. These are all high-class players and the first two excel in the sweltering heat of Durban, but England will hope to expose Temba Bavuma, a middle-order player forced to bat higher than he should.

There are many similarities between the sides. Concerns over depth of seam attack, new or inexperienced players at the top of the order and barely a spinner in the series worth describing as such. Moeen Ali is improving and does a good job for England but he is a stop-gap off-spinner who adds value with the bat at number eight.

That is why England can approach the series with a quiet confidence. However, to have any chance of success the batting group need to ensure 400 or more is the norm rather than a special effort. The pressure is on Alastair Cook and Joe Root as the two main men and the hope is that two of Alex Hales, James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, Ballance and Compton have the kind of series that cements a place in the side for the foreseeable future. If they do then that will give greater freedom to Stokes and Moeen to force home an advantage rather than scrap a recovery.

If they fail to do this then it will be a hard two months, as South Africa can be an unforgiving tour for visitors. And for both teams the challenge will be more of the ball bouncing above waist height than on their recent trips to the sub-continent. Batters will have courage tested rather than patience and all will have to fathom a manner of scoring against the short or back-of-a-length delivery. Hales failed in the warm-up game as he opens up the off-side which brings all slips and cover fielders into play as the ball bounces more steeply.

If he can go legside with powerful pulls then he should succeed. He plays them in the T20 and one-day fixtures so all he needs to do is approach Test matches the same way.

Questions will be posed to many players on both sides and those that can find answers and methods quickest will contribute to a series win. That is the delicious position for this group of England players, a group who the form books should give no chance to at all.

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