SA, England gear up for battle in familiar conditions

Both teams are coming off losses in their respective trips to the subcontinent. While England suffer a blow ahead of the first Test in Durban by the injury to James Anderson, the leader of their pace attack, his South African counterpart returns to boost the home side.

South Afric will benefit by the return of Dale Steyn in pace-friendly conditions at home.   -  File photo: K. R. Deepak

Alex Hales was second in the run charts for England in their One-Day International series against Pakistan in the UAE in November. The opener is set to gain his first Test cap in the upcoming Test in Durban.   -  Getty Images

South Africa and England meet at Kingsmead from Saturday in the first of four Tests between two evenly-match teams, both seeking a return to winning ways. South Africa were trounced 3-0 by India recently in their biggest setback since becoming the top-ranked Test team in 2012, while England were beaten 2-0 by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in their most recent series.

Both teams will relish a return to more familiar conditions after struggling on slow, spin-friendly pitches during their defeats. The absence of leading bowler James Anderson because of a calf strain is a major blow to England at a ground where swing bowlers often prosper, while the return to action after injury of Dale Steyn is a boost for South Africa.

But England have reason for confidence after showing outstanding form in two warm-up games, while South Africa's batsmen, most of whom failed in India, were unable to rediscover their best form while playing in four-day domestic matches, with only Temba Bavuma making a half-century. AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis opted to rest ahead of the Tests.

"We want to start well. After our performance in India which didn't go too well that will be important," said South Africa captain Hashim Amla. "No matter whom we come across on the day it's important for us to start well. For us it's not about who is leading the attack for England, it doesn't make a difference to us. We are faced with our own challenges and it's something that everybody in the team is looking forward to."

Good run for England in Durban

England will be encouraged by their record at Kingsmead, where South Africa have their poorest record at a home venue, with nine wins and six defeats in 21 matches since returning to Test cricket in 1992. England have not been beaten at the ground during this period, drawing three Tests and winning the 2009/10 encounter by an innings.

Both teams rely primarily on their fast bowlers and both have question marks against their opening batting combinations. While England captain Alastair Cook has been a heavy run-scorer in recent times, he has had a succession of opening partners who have been tried and found wanting. Alex Hales, who will win his first cap on Saturday, is the latest to try to win a long-term place.

Dean Elgar has had reasonable success at the top of the order for South Africa but remains relatively inexperienced, while Stiaan van Zyl was converted into an opening batsman and could manage only 56 runs in five innings in India, falling to off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin on each occasion. The ability of the openers to see off the strong new ball attacks of both teams could be a big factor.

Both teams have opted to lengthen their batting orders by handing the wicketkeeping gloves to men who first won selection as specialist batsmen. De Villiers, South Africa's best batsman and the only man to reach 50 against India, will keep wicket for the hosts, while Jonny Bairstow will fill the role for England.

Neither team has an established specialist spin bowler but off-spinner Moeen Ali has done well for England in addition to being a highly capable batsman at number eight. South Africa have on occasions opted for an all-seam attack at Kingsmead but Amla said he was reluctant to go in without a spinner, which is likely to mean that steady off-spinner Dane Piedt will win his third cap.

Teams

South Africa (likely): Hashim Amla (captain), Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers (wkt), Temba Bavuma, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott or Dane Piedt.

England (likely): Alastair Cook (captain), Alex Hales, Nick Compton, Joe Root, James Taylor, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wkt), Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (PAK), Rod Tucker (AUS)

TV umpire: Bruce Oxenford (AUS)

Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (SRI)

Fixtures:

December

26-30 First Test, Durban

January

2-6 Second Test, Cape Town

14-18 Third Test, Johannesburg

22-26 Fourth Test, Centurion

The Test series will be followed by five one-day internationals and two Twenty20 internationals.