England v South Africa: Graeme Swann’s spin can give hosts the edge
Don’t get sloppy and think you only have to turn up to win. If we are over-confident we will lose to South Africa in the three-Test series that begins on Thursday.
We played well and deserved to beat Australia but remember they were playing out of season. Some of them had not had competitive cricket for a while, and on top of that injuries hurt them.
South Africa are a good, well-balanced side and our biggest rivals now for the No 1 slot. In seam bowling and batting there is nothing to choose between the sides.
We have to be at our best. They can beat us. They have enough talent. But it is not an easy call picking a winner from a mouth-watering series. This is the first time for a while in England it has been hard to say who is going to win.
Where we do score a slight advantage over South Africa is in spin bowling and wicketkeeping. Matt Prior is a key component.
His keeping has been marvellous for the past couple of years but he has to keep up that high standard and bat well.
I don’t want to see him playing a shot a ball, making little cameos before getting himself out. He needs to bat properly and make an impact.
I am sad about the eye injury to Mark Boucher. It was very unlucky but I felt he was coming to the end of his career and his batting was diminishing.
They have been looking around for sometime to find a successor and it was reported they tried to tap up Craig Kieswetter a while ago. A key factor will be how the stand-in wicketkeeper, A B de Villiers, holds up to a six-hour day in the field.
He keeps wicket and captains in the 50-over game but that is only 3½ hours and then he gets a few days off.
Where England have a definite edge is in the spin department. Graeme Swann is miles better than Imran Tahir.
They don’t have any wicket-taking spinners and they have drafted in this Pakistani leg-spinner because he has a South African wife.
We can’t complain because we have plenty of South Africans and an Irishman knocking about our team.
The other area we score highly in is the lower-order runs from guys such as Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad and Swann. England’s batting runs deep whereas South Africa have a longer tail.
These are only small areas but can be crucial in a tight three-match series and we have to make them count.
Ravi Bopara will come into the side as the one change from the West Indies series and the fact he made runs in the one-dayers will be good for his confidence and form. But quite frankly we don’t have any other batsman queuing up to play anyway.
It is one reason there is a question mark over the batting if we get injuries to the batsmen.
The other man back in the side is Kevin Pietersen. He scored a brilliant double hundred for Surrey and looks in cracking form.
But it will not always work out that way. When he doesn’t play for England in one-day cricket and there is only Twenty20 on the county schedule, he won’t get enough batting.
It was a calculated gamble by him to retire from one-day cricket. But it is not easy to dip in and out. Every batsman needs runs for his form and confidence.
Our seam bowling is top-class. We have Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions and they are as good as any other line-up in the world.
But South Africa are good too. Dale Steyn is the No 1 bowler in the world. He is quicker than Jimmy. He bowls outswing and seam.
Jimmy is a bit craftier but both are the ‘go-to’ guy when the going gets tough for their team. If either of these guys gets on a roll he can change a Test match very quickly.
Morne Morkel is a tall guy with a high action who gets awkward bounce.
He has a tendency to bowl a touch too short for English pitches and needs to pitch the ball up another two to three feet and find that awkward, fuller length that made Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Glenn McGrath and Vintcent van der Bijl so good and difficult to play in this country.
Vernon Philander is an English-type seamer. He is not too quick but his biggest asset is hitting the deck on a good length around off stump. He bowls in that ‘corridor of uncertainty’ for batsmen that made McGrath a great wicket-taking bowler. It is simple and effective.
As for the batsmen, I think England should target Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla. Kallis is the key player, important to the balance of the team because he is a world-class batsman, a world-class slip fielder and is still a very decent seam bowler. England have got to get him out.
Smith as captain is a hard man. He has been a big scorer up front for this team for many years. It is crucial we get at him early and make life difficult by not allowing him to score on his favourite leg side. This is his third tour here and we need to have better plans for him.
Amla is a quiet guy but don’t be misled as he has improved tremendously over the past couple of years. He has been so good and successful with a wide range of shots on the front or back foot. He plays a bit freely around off stump but it works for him. He also plays well off his hip and legs.