When Joe Root touched down in South Africa on 14 December, he would have been confident of maintaining England’s 20-year unbeaten record in Test series in this country.
But just two days from the first Test against the Proteas at SuperSport Park in Centurion, the English captain cut a despondent figure when he addressed the gathered press.
‘It’s been frustrating,’ Root said of his side’s preparations. ‘But we have to handle it and get on with it.’
Several key members of the squad, including pace bowler Jofra Archer, veteran seamer Stuart Broad and spinner Jack Leach, have been laid low with a virus, hampering their warm-up matches in Benoni.
With the news that the world’s best all-rounder Ben Stokes might miss out on Boxing Day as a result of the sudden and serious illness of his father, who is being tended to in a Johannesburg hospital, Root’s woes are only worsening.
‘The important thing we want to stress is to respect the privacy of Ben and his family,’ Root said, providing perspective on the fate of a cricket ball when compared to the health of a loved one. ‘It’s crucial that comes first.’
But the show goes on and whichever cluster of cricketers Root is able to field he will do so against a buoyed South African team that has drawn confidence from the new additions in the coaching team.
‘We’ve never played against a South Africa team that hasn’t played with pride and passion and that does everything they can to win and I expect the same,” Root said, downplaying the events that have occurred off the field in South African cricket this year. ‘They’re a good team in their own conditions. We’ve had some wonderful Test matches in the past and I expect this series to be full of them.’
With Archer and Stokes going through challenges of their own, Root will lean on the experience of James Anderson who play in his 150th Test on Boxing Day. It is a remarkable achievement for the 37-year-old fast bowler who has only gotten better with age, averaging 21.16 in the last four years compared to his career average of 26.94.
‘He looks in as good a shape as I’ve seen him,’ Broad said of his seamer with 575 Test wickets. ‘It’s a testament to him and an example to all young cricketers.’
Some of those youngsters may be asked to front up to the Centurion crowd. Craig Overton, 25, and Dominic Bess, 22, have flown over to bolster the squad that suddenly looks rather bare.