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.