Friday, 4 July 2008

England vs South Africa: The form guide

After the seemingly endless round of Test matches between England and New Zealand, the England team finally faces some very different opponents. The South Africans have been on a tear in the last 18 months or so, beating nearly everyone they've come up against. Only the Indians, on their home turf, managed to hold them to a draw.

Since the start of 2007 South Africa have played 16 Tests, winning 11, drawing 2 and losing just 3. England, meanwhile, have been unpredictable in the same period, though they've only lost 4 of the 17 they've played, they have drawn 6, winning only 7.

Both sides have shown great faith in their players since 2007, consistently selecting very similar line-ups. For South Africa the retirement of Pollock and the dramatic loss of form of Gibbs have been the only ripples to disturb selection. England, on the other hand, ruthlessly ditched Hoggard and Harmison and have had the usual issues with their wicketkeeper, moving from Jones to Prior to Ambrose to no real effect.

Seven South Africans have played all 16 matches since the start of 2007, with Steyn and Harris only missing out on 2 and 3 matches, respectively. Five England players have played all 17 Tests, with Vaughan and Sidebottom only missing 2 and Strauss missing 3.

With such loyalty you would be forgiven for thinking that both sides were performing well and the selectors had great reason to pursue the policy of continuity. Whilst this is certainly true of the South Africans, England's selectors should have real concerns over the inconsistent form of some key players.

The individual records of each team since 2007 would make South Africa clear favourites. Their batsmen have a far superior record to England's and in Steyn they have the best fast bowler in the world. However, England have room for optimism. They have home advantage and a very good home record in the last few years. Three of the South African batsmen, Amla, Prince and de Villiers, have not played in England before and McKenzie fared poorly last time he toured. Also only Ntini, of the four first choice bowlers, has played in England and his record is not very good.

Of course, first time tourists of England often fare well, especially bowlers, but the alien Test conditions should not be underestimated. England also have trump cards in Pietersen, Sidebottom and Panesar, all of whom are near the top of their game and have produced match-winning performances in recent series.

Hard to believe though it may be England also have a better tail than South Africa. Morkel (2007 to present average: 10.80), Harris (7.25), Steyn (10.83) and Ntini (5.16) have been relatively easy prey in recent series. Whilst England's tail of Broad (30.14), Sidebottom (16.92), Anderson (12.85) and Panesar (3.77) have shown great fight. Of course, much of this has been down the the failures of the England top order and the need for 8 to 11 to resist, but it is still an important factor when assessing the form of the two sides.

Weighing up all the stats and recent matches each team has played I suggest that the series will be a close one, as is usually the case when these two teams meet. England will need to utilise their home advantage and out of form players, such as Cook, Collingwood, Bell and Ambrose will have to up their game. South Africa will have to adapt quickly to English conditions and will need their experienced players, Smith, Kallis, Boucher and Ntini to make sure the team maintains its fine current run.


Tim said...

Very intereting point about the respective strengths of the tails, Nick, although in Steyn SA have a player who blows tails out for fun.

I'm angry about England's continued insistence all is well with the Test side, after some very poor displays against a depleted NZ. Jones should be in, preferably for Andersoon; at least one of Bell and Colly (perhaps both) should have been ditched for Shah; and Ambrose's range of shots is so limited I can't envisage him scoring too many.

Should be a cracking series.

Richard Lake said...

Sorry Tim can't let that go. Jones cannot be considered in a four man bowling attack until he has bowled a lot more overs for Worcester. He's already broken down once this season and while his form is encouraging, his inclusion would put far too much pressure on Sidebottom and Broad.

Equally Anderson took 7-fer in his last test and is beginning to show some consistency with the selectors keeping faith with him. Jones and Flintoff are rightly in the selectors thoughts, but only for the end of the series or the winter when they are fully recovered and match fit.

I agree about Shah for Collingwood though and Ambrose has some work to do to keep his place. Bell, I suspect, may have a career defining series.

Nick Gammons said...

How Steyn performs on his first tour of England should be one of the most exciting aspects of the series. If he maintains his recent form England will have to bat very well and the tail will be exposed. However, England do seem to raise their game against top pace bowlers. I can't wait to see the action unfold.

Shah should have replaced Collingwood some time ago and Bell needs to deliver when England need him. For me doubts will continue to persist about him while his 162* against Bangladesh scored so many years ago remains his highest test score and he continues to fail when the team is up against it. If this is not a career defining series it should be a career curtailing one.

Anderson would be unlucky to be replaced now and I agree with Richard that Jones needs to prove his fitness for another few four day matches before he can be considered.

I honestly believe England have the firepower if the pitches are not ridiculous feather beds as they were against India last year. The questions are mostly to be asked of the batsmen and Ambrose's future hangs by a thread.

Philip Oliver said...

Richard, you're right about the importance of this series for Bell, although we always seem to be saying that!

When does the selectors' loyalty become foolhardy? It is amazing to compare this current continuity with the 'two bad matches and you're out' policy of yesteryear.