First Test preview: England v South Africa

England

At last, the highlight series of the year has arrived. The battle for the number one Test nation commences at the Oval, and the build-up has been frantic.

At last, the highlight series of the year has arrived. The battle for the number one Test nation commences at the Oval, and the build-up has been frantic.

Will Kevin Pietersen's off-field drama affect his performance in the middle? Will AB de Villiers be able to fill Mark Boucher's gloves? Which bowling attack will do better, and will a spinner prove crucial?

Provided the weather plays along, those questions will begin to be answered in Kennington this weekend. South Africa have never won at the Oval, and the last three times they played here they lost by rather large margins, by at least four wickets each time.

But the Proteas are playing to usurp England as the best Test team on the planet, and a 1-0 lead into the last two games will go a long way in achieving that. They have a lot to motivate them, aside from the rankings question, as most pundits are giving England the win by a small margin.

England are coming off a series win against the West Indies, which, to be fair, wasn't the most stringent of challenges. The last time they lost a home series was to many of these Proteas in 2008. Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers will be keen to repeat the result.

But, the final game of that series was at the Oval, and it was the one game England won. Makhaya Ntini, the one man who had the measure of England's batting order in that match, is not around any more, while the top four of that order are ready to rumble again.

Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Strauss will be eager to avenge that 2-1 series defeat, while James Anderson and Stuart Broad remain of that bowling attack and are much more experienced this time around. Let's not forget about Graeme Swann, who will be key if England get to bowl near the end on this traditionally dry and spinning track.

Which ever side wins this match will have a massive psychological advantage going into the rest of the series, as there isn't really enough time to catch up if things go badly wrong. There are only three Tests on this tour, so a 1-0 lead could be enough to ensure the ICC number crunchers put a '1' next to either name.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>England:</i> With 24 wickets in three Tests at this ground, it has to be <b>Graeme Swann</b>'s game for the taking. The spinner has recently recovered from an elbow niggle picked up in the ODI series against the Aussies, but if he's fully fit and firing into the dusty footholes, the Proteas will need to be well on their toes.

<i>South Africa:</i> This Test, as well as the series, is being billed as the battle of the bowlers, so it would be easy to echo everyone else and name Dale Steyn as the key man. He will be <i>a</i> key man, for sure, but <b>Jacques Kallis</b> is still the danger batsman. He's patient, he's toured England twice before, and he'll be playing for BFF Mark Boucher.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><br>2010: Fourth Test: South Africa won by an innings and 74 runs in Johannesburg<br>2010: Third Test: Match drawn in Cape Town<br>2009: Second Test: England won by an innings and 98 runs in Durban<br>2009: First Test: Match drawn in Centurion<br>2008: Fourth Test: England won by six wickets in London

<b>Prediction:</b><br> No-one seems to want to call this series, one way or the other. And we'll do the same, saying it's too close to predict overall, but this first Test might just go the way of the home side.

They've played a lot of cricket in recent weeks, they're firing on all cylinders, they've got a bowling attack that's settled and enjoys this ground, their spinner is better than South Africa's, their top order is also on the money more often than not, and they have a permanent, established wicketkeeper-batsman.

So while the series may be tough to call, South Africa might be a bit slow out of the blocks first time out, given their short preparation time. Then again, maybe they'll be so fired up and looking to prove everyone wrong that they go ahead and win by a mile. Who knows…

Online betting firm <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Sky Bet</b></a> have England at 15/8 to win in the first Test. South Africa enjoy odds of 3/1, while a draw is placed at 11/10. Visit Sky Bet for the latest <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>cricket betting</b></a>.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>England:</i> Andrew Strauss (captain), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Matt Prior (wicketkeeper), Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann, James Anderson.

<i>South Africa:</i> Graeme Smith (captain), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wicketkeeper), Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir.

<b>Dates:</b> 19 to 23 July<br><b>Morning session:</b> 11:00-13:00 (10:00-12:00 GMT)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 13:40-15:40 (12:40-14:40 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 16:00-18:00 (15:00-17:00 GMT)<br><b>On-field umpires:</b> Steve Davis and Asad Rauf<br><B>Third umpire:</B> Kumar Dharmasena<BR><b>Match referee:</b> Jeff Crowe

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