Oh, how much better this question would be if the series was given a full five Test matches. Then a squad’s and each individual player’s character, technique and temperament would be fully examined. Come the end there would be no doubt about the best. However, a three-match series can fall prey to inclement weather, of which there has been far too much about already this summer, or one outstanding performance or indeed one under-prepared pitch.
The Oval, Headingley and Lord’s are the venues but ask any groundsman if he has had the necessary sun to properly prepare a very good cricket wicket this season and you will receive a lengthy moan that would do any curmudgeonly farmer proud.
The annoying thing is that in 2008, on South Africa’s last visit, both cricket boards signed an agreement that future series would be considered “iconic” series and therefore have five Test matches, or at least a minimum of four. So this series has been shortened because the TV broadcasters did not like the scheduling.
That is a great shame and needs rectifying. How intriguing would the main battles at the top of the order be if over five matches?
They should decide the series. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott have the most awkward task of blunting a three-pronged seam attack that is the envy of every other country, with the possible exception of England. Dale Steyn is the whippet that bowls express pace with late swing, Vernon Philander reached 50 Test wickets in only seven matches while Morne Morkel is the beanpole that threatens ribs and throats. What a combination and one that will need to be negated if England are to prosper.
But here is the conundrum. As good as that seam attack is, would England exchange it for theirs?
James Anderson is slightly slower than Steyn but more nuanced in swing and they are both at their peak. Stuart Broad is aggressive, fast and like Morkel can cause great discomfort by bowling short but is also a real threat when he bowls a fuller length as he gets some away swing and Tim Bresnan is the old-fashioned Shire horse, adept at blocking up one end and taking wickets when the ball is older and softer.
Do not forget Steven Finn is lurking, desperate to play and he is currently delivering 90 mile per hour thunderbolts. Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla have to blunt them if South Africa are going to post a total.
It is a match-up to delight any that revel in cricket. Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League may have cheerleaders and razzmatazz but players can hide. There will be no such opportunities in these Test matches and that is why it should be riveting.
Sadly for Mark Boucher he has been denied the chance to finish a wonderful career with such an important series. The freak accident when the dislodged bail hit his eye was dreadful, not only physically but also for the team as his absence weakens South Africa. He has been a mainstay for many years, a sniping terrier behind the stumps, always driving his bowlers and fielders on and a stubborn counter-puncher with the bat. AB de Villiers will take the gloves for the first Test, with Thami Tsolekile drafted in as tour replacement.
De Villiers, left, is South Africa’s most thrilling stroke-maker and could do without the added burden of keeping wicket, even if it is only for the one Test. If he struggles this week at the Kia Oval, with either gauntlets or bat, it could derail South Africa.
England have no such concerns. All those who played in the recent one-day series against Australia are high on confidence and in excellent form. Both Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, who did not feature, have scored timely runs last week for Middlesex and Surrey and Matt Prior has been in superlative form for Sussex in the T20.
If there is a minor worry it is Graeme Swann’s elbow, which niggled him enough to be rested half-way through the one-day series. Spin is where England do have a clear advantage. Imran Tahir has played county cricket for Hampshire and Warwickshire which means many of the England batsmen have faced him. His googly should not be a surprise to them and they know his zest for taking wickets means he tends to bowl too many bad balls.
Gary Kirsten, the South African coach, has been encouraging Tahir to adopt a more disciplined, patient approach to wicket-taking but England will be keen to attack him and put pressure on Smith to exhaust his seamers.
On such fine margins will this series be decided. That is of course if the rain relents long enough for matches to move towards a conclusion. If not, and draws are the norm, then England will retain the No.1 ranking. Currently they have 117 points and South Africa 116. It is that close, and the hope is the weather allows the three Test matches to be keenly contested. The players and spectators deserve that, if not the broadcasters without whom this would have been a proper five-match series.
First Test: Thursday, 19 July, The Oval
Second Test: Thursday, 2 August, Headingley
Third Test: Thursday, 16 August, Lord’s