Following the recently completed Ashes series, won so comprehensively by Australia, the old enemies now embark on five one-day internationals before the summer cricketing trilogy is completed with two Twenty20 matches in early February.
Although the opening ODI on Sunday at the Melbourne Cricket Ground may not inspire the same excitement as the Boxing Day Test – and about half the ticket sales – there are still some points of interest.
Primarily how can England be expected to bounce back after the devastation of the 4-0 walloping?
The answer: surprisingly well, as apart from representing the same nation there is very little similarity between this England line-up and the one that surrendered so meekly in the main event.
For starters as few as four players who went down in flames in Sydney will back-up: opening bat Jonny Bairstow, recovered captain Joe Root, spinner Moeen Ali and medium pacer Tom Curran. A second medium-pacer Chris Woakes, who also featured prominently in The Ashes should also make an appearance.
Joining them are ODI captain Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, who will be preferred as keeper to Bairstow, the genuinely sharp Liam Plunkett and Mark Wood (mysteriously not used in the Tests), Jason Roy or (bad boy No2) Alex Hales, partnering Bairstow up top, and Adil Rashid, the leg-spinner who should have played in Sydney rather than the limited Mason Crane.
And unlike the Tests, where questions abounded over England’s new faces – Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Dawid Malan and Crane – the question marks now hang over the Australian line-up and a middle order that has been the Achilles heel in recent years.
England come into the match with form on their side – four wins from their last five outings – where Australia are completely the opposite, losing four of their last five.
And whereas England have a stable line-up that picks itself Australia have multiple options at No.5 and 6 with Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Marsh and the recalled Cameron White in the mix, a new wicket-keeper in Tim Paine and a bowling line-up without the rested Josh Hazlewood, replaced by the far less fearsome Andrew Tye.
In the end it may come down again to Steve Smith saving Australia but his ODI average of 43.23 is nothing like his Bradman-like Test median (63.75) and without the Aussie captain’s dominance, when the big moments arrive in this series, it may be England not the hosts who come out on top.
After wickets fell in heaps in the first Test at Newlands, the pitch at SuperSport Park presented an entirely different proposition as batsmen ruled the roost. South Africa were at 269-6 in their first innings when stumps were called on day one.
Faf du Plessis won the toss and elected to bat first as 21-year-old Lungi Ngidi was handed his Test debut, replacing the injured Dale Steyn. Virat Kohli made three changes as KL Rahul, Parthiv Patel and Ishant Sharma replaced Shikhar Dhawan, Wriddhiman Saha and Bhuvneshwar Kumar respectively.
Here, we look at the good and bad performances of an opening day which saw a great battle once again between the top two Test sides in the world.
AIDEN MARKRAM’S 94 LEADS SOUTH AFRICAN CHARGE
Markram was bang on the money when he had predicted the Centurion pitch on his home ground to yield a lot more runs than Newlands. The 23-year-old feasted on the good batting conditions on offer with a fluent and aesthetic innings where he was on top of the bowlers from ball one.
The right-handed batsman has had a great start to his Test career and he continued to show that he has a bright future ahead of him with an assured display on Saturday. His drives through mid-on and mid-off regions against the fuller deliveries were a joy to watch while he was equally punishing against the shorter-deliveries.
The opener was looking good for his third Test ton in only his fifth match but fell agonizingly short by six runs after getting caught behind to Ravichandran Ashwin. Nevertheless, his runs at the top set-up an excellent platform for South Africa to push towards a big total.
RAVICHANDRAN ASHWIN SPINS INDIA BACK INTO THE GAME
Dean Elgar, after surviving a testing period against Ishant Sharma, had established a strong opening stand along with Markram as India went wicketless in the opening session.
Ashwin found some joy instantly on the Centurion track and put Elgar through some uncomfortable moments before lunch. He had his man straight after lunch as Elgar tried to hit his way out of trouble only to stab a cleverly-flighted delivery to backward point.
Ashwin then removed Markram against the run of play with a delivery that did not turn as much as the South African opener had expected it to. The Indian spin ace then returned during the final overs of the day to dismiss Quinton De Kock for a golden duck with a sharp dipping delivery that took the batsman’s outside edge on its way to Kohli at slip.
While pacers had dominated the opening Test, Ashwin’s vital wickets on Saturday shows the value his spin brings to the Indian side even in overseas conditions.
PARTHIV PATEL DROPPING AMLA PROVES COSTLY
Hashim Amla had been out of knick recently with single digit scores in his last three Test innings. The pressure was on the senior Proteas stalwart when he came out to bat on Saturday and he grinded his way to 30 runs before presenting a chance to Parthiv Patel.
The 34-year-old’s attempted flick towards the leg-side to an Ishant Sharma delivery took a big edge off his bat but Patel failed to collect a relatively straight-forward chance diving to his left to let Amla off the hook.
In the side, only due to an injury to Saha, Patel’s drop proved costly for the visitors as Amla went on to add another 51 runs and was looking good for his 29th Test ton before being run-out.
SOUTH AFRICA LET SLIP ADVANTAGE WITH SHAMBOLIC RUNNING
After the fall of Markram, Amla and du Plessis had formed a solid partnership as it looked like the hosts would end day one for the loss of only two wickets. However, South Africa lost their composure in the final 10 overs of the day as two inexcusable run-outs brought India right back into the game.
First to fall was Amla to a sensational piece of fielding off his own bowling by Hardik Pandya. Du Plessis called immediately for a single after Amla punted the ball towards the short-leg region but Pandya sprinted in and unleashed a direct throw at the non-striker’s end in a single motion to send the batsman on his way.
The second was even more baffling as Vernon Philander‘s attempted flick off a Pandya delivery lobbed into the air between the wicket-keeper and mid-wicket. As the two fielders converged towards the ball, Philander casually kept wandering down the pitch with his eyes fixated towards the action. He failed to pay heed to Du Plessis’ call to send him back and was run-out comfortably as Pandya removed the bails.
South Africa hold a 1-0 lead over India in the three-Test series ahead of the second match in Centurion, starting on Saturday.
The hosts won a thriller, by 72 runs, in Cape Town which brought to the fore plenty of talking points.
Here, we look at three of them:
INDIA CAN’T AFFORD TOP-ORDER TO FALTER AGAIN
The failure of India’s batsmen in the first Test proved their big undoing with no player in the top-order, including skipper Virat Kohli, scoring more than 28 in either innings. With conditions in Centurion likely, once again, to aid pace bowling and favour the hosts, the tourists will have to be more secure outside off-stump and bat with greater patience.
India need the batters to step-up rather than rely on the likes of Hardik Pandya and Ravichandran Ashwin plundering runs. Calls to bring back KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane at the top, in place of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, have dominated punditry talk but shot selection and concentration rather than personnel is the main concern.
HOW DO SOUTH AFRICA MANAGE WITH DALE STEYN’S ABSENCE?
Whilst we have just seen Australia’s pace attack prove just too good for England in the Ashes, South Africa’s bowlers come into that same quality bracket. With Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander all in fine fettle, Steyn’s injury absence throughout the rest of the series will be felt, but not so much as it would have been five or six years ago. Still, it is a blow that the iconic quick is on the treatment table again.
The out-and-out pace of Duanne Olivier will likely be South Africa’s go-to option given the 25-year-old has Test cricket experience under his belt after taking 17 wickets at an average of 23.11 in his only five Tests to date, all played in 2017.
CAN INDIA GET AB DE VILLIERS OUT EARLY?
Having only made his return to Test cricket last month following an 18-month hiatus from the game and doubts as to whether we would ever see him in whites again, South Africa’s mercurial batsman showed just why, in the first Test, that the game’s longest format is a better place when he’s at the crease. De Villiers scored an 84-ball 65 in the first innings when India were bowling well with the help of seam and swing, and he also chipped in during the second.
Simply put, his runs were vital and swung the momentum the Proteas’ way in the end. India need to bowl tighters line and pitch it up more against AB, especially when the 33-year-old is looking to attack.