• England: 5 talking points

    TOM SIZELAND examines the visitors ahead of the first Test between South Africa and England in Durban.


    Alastair Cook and Joe Root both notched up centuries against SA A last week, and while they will be happy to go in to the first Test with some form under their belts, it was a situation that has become all too familiar for the English this year. The pair are becoming much like AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla have for the Proteas in recent times – the players their side relies on. They both occupy the top-two positions in Test runs scored this year. You have to move outside the top ten and cut Cook’s tally almost in half to find the next player, Ben Stokes. If the Proteas can snuff out the threat of the pair, England will need to look for runs in the middle order, something that they haven’t found this year.


    It’s not just high time for Alex Hales, it’s high time for an English opener other than Cook. Since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, Cook has gone through seven different partners, with Hales set to become the eighth on Boxing Day. Nick Compton is one of those seven, but he’s set to play at No 3, which gives Hales a clear opportunity to make the spot his own. He will have to fire from the get-go to convince the national selectors that he is the man for the role, which is easier said than done against the best new-ball attack in the world.


    Since the Proteas don’t possess a genuine all-rounder, Ben Stokes could be the man to prove the difference between the sides. His batting this year left much to be desired heading in to the Proteas series, but a brutal 158 against the SA Invitational side and a 66 against SA A, plus wickets in both matches, has given him a timely return to form. Some might argue that JP Duminy can rival his all-round abilities, but Stokes offers a fourth seam option, and if he continues his form with the bat, he has the potential to take the game away in a session.


    Recent history against the Proteas suggests they can. James Anderson’s record against Amla and De Villiers is shocking reading, with their respective averages against the paceman reading 127.50 and 96.50. In 17 Tests against the Proteas, he averages an underwhelming 38.07. Despite this, he will be sorely missed if his form this year is anything to go by. He was in brilliant form against Pakistan on a deck that offered little for him, and in 11 Tests this year, he has taken 46 wickets at 22.65. Anderson looks set to miss at least the first match with a calf injury, so Stuart Broad and Steven Finn will need to step up with the new ball.


    England have hyped up the pacey, bouncy decks that South Africa boasts, and this hype has mostly been created by the damage that Morne Morkel did the last time these sides met here in 2009-10. In what was one of Morkel’s finest series, he took 19 wickets in four matches at an average of 21.47. He continued to wreak havoc in England in 2012, almost single-handedly forcing James Taylor out of the Test arena for three years, as he couldn’t handle Morkel. England know all too well what quick, aggressive bowlers can do to them (think Mitchell Johnson in 2013), and Morkel, along with Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada will be well aware of that, too.

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    Tom Sizeland