On Thursday England’s 2017 Test match summer will belatedly begin – the July 6th start will be the latest first Test of the English season since 1983. This will get underway with South Africa’s Test ranking of two and England’s of four, belying uncertainty and instability within both teams.
Joe Root will finally, six months after his appointment as Alastair Cook’s successor, be captaining England for the first time in Test cricket while the identity of South Africa’s captain for the match remains unknown with Faf du Plessis attending the birth of his first child at home and Dean Elgar poised to fill in if du Plessis does not return before Thursday.
Joe Root will finally, six months after his appointment as Alastair Cook’s successor, be captaining England for the first time in Test cricket
This state of flux at the helm of both teams embodies the situation below where two teams who have topped the rankings within the last five years are more unsure of their best team than they have been for many years.
Dean Elgar will be leading South African side in the absence of Faf du Plessis
When England’s Test selectors convened on Friday for what head coach Trevor Bayliss described as “the most difficult” selection meeting of his tenure, the identity of at least three players in the 12-man squad were unknown. The upshot of that meeting is that Keaton Jennings will continue to partner Cook at the top of the order, Haseeb Hameed, with a first-class average in 2017 of 17.25 has been left out, Gary Ballance is back for a third stint in Test cricket, while Toby-Roland Jones is in-line for a debut, facing off against Liam Dawson for the last spot in the team.
Toby-Roland Jones is in-line for a debut for England
England’s selection issues embody a deeper confusion regarding the balance of their team, with England set to go into the Test with either five seamers (James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Ben Stokes and Roland-Jones) or three all-rounders (Stokes, Moeen Ali and Dawson); both of which are traditionally unusual and perhaps represent a lack of confidence in the form and, or fitness of their bowlers. To compound this uncertainty, many believe that Jonny Bairstow, arguably England’s best batsman on current form, should relinquish the wicket-keeping role to focus solely on his batting.
South Africa’s issues are different but no less serious. The continuing absence of AB de Villiers, who appears increasingly disenchanted with the game, and Dale Steyn, through injury, rob South Africa of 191 Tests and two of the finest players of the 21st century. Their absence transforms South Africa from a team boasting a healthy mix of experience and youth to a conspicuously top-heavy team, significantly reliant on a handful of players.
Typically, South Africa’s strength in depth provided by a robust domestic structure would go some way to plugging these gaps, but the worsening Kolpak problem, which sees as many as 58 South African-born players appearing in county cricket, means South African cricket is facing an existential crisis.
It is against this tumultuous backdrop that the Test series will be played. Yet, despite the prevailing sense of confusion, there remains more than enough quality to produce what could be a fascinating series. While the series could well be decided by which unstable team makes the fewest mistakes, it could equally be decided by which of the team’s A-Listers: Cook, Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Broad, Anderson, Amla, du Plessis, de Kock and Rabada capitalises on the insecurity of their opponents.