Third Test preview: England v SA

Geoffrey Boycott's revelation that "the issues around Kevin Pietersen are more important than beating South Africa" typified England's anxiety, while Tim Bresnan's suggestion that "it may be an even better side" without Pietersen downright exemplified their desperation.

Geoffrey Boycott's recent revelation that "the issues around Kevin Pietersen are more important than beating South Africa" typified England's anxiety this week.

Tim Bresnan's suggestion that "it may be an even better side" without Pietersen, however, downright exemplified their desperation.

There's little denying it, Andrew Strauss' men are at their worst since slumping to 51 all out at the hands of the West Indies – and later losing the series – in 2009.

February's whitewash at the hands of Pakistan, a stop-start tour of Sri Lanka, the drubbing at The Oval, Pietersen's this, Pietersen's that and Pietersen's next thing have all served to damage a unit otherwise synonymous for their unrelenting strides.

Fittingly, or unfortunately, depending on your allegiance, it has all come in a year that coach Andy Flower and captain Strauss professed would be their team's defining endeavour.

All is not going according to plan.

While few are going to forget England's dominance of Australia, India and the West Indies in the past 18 months, it will soon take a backseat if they don't rectify – and rectify very well – their recent inadequacies, at Lord's.

'The bigger they are, the harder they fall,' reads the old adage, and any top-ranked team worth their status have to be able to roll with – and brush off – the punches quickly enough.

Chestnuts and truisms aside, England's success will not be built on the success of one, two or three individuals this time. Now, more than ever, they're going to have to gel as a complete XI.

Two rookies in the middle order and a bowling attack even contemplating the need for a fifth prong is largely unheard of in England circles post-2005. Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Steven Finn and/or Tim Bresnan/Graham Onions, indeed, have their work cut out for them in picking up the slack left by the seasoned seniors.

Bairstow, insufficient in the face of the short ball, which he is sure to cop a slew of this week, is no Pietersen despite Bresnan's finest attempt to suggest so. One wonders if a recall for Eoin Morgan would've been the better bet, but what's done is done – and what the Irishman lacks in favour the Yorkshireman will try bring in redemption.

Graeme Swann will return, his Headingley omission not quite forgiven but must be forgotten. Considerably the pick of the litter in terms of Test wickets at Lord's recently, the spinner will return balance to an attack lined with one-dimensional right-arm seamers in Leeds.

The debate over the extent – quartet or quintet? – of the bowling unit seems a moot point. All options will be discussed when one-nil down in a three-match battle for the number one ranking, but England haven't played five bowlers in a long time nor are they going to at Lord's. What four and a long tail couldn't do at Leeds, five and a longer tail aren't going to do in London.

South Africa, meanwhile, have shrugged off their battle scars from the middle installment of this trilogy. Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis have been cleared to play, while Alviro Petersen soon will be – back to open the innings with his record-breaking captain.

Smith will surpass Australian Allan Border as Test cricket's most capped skipper on Thursday. Seeing his side summit the rankings, in the milestone match, which would douse Strauss' 50th as captain and 100th overall, couldn't be sweeter.

A two-fold sideshow to the main plot will be the performances of Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir. Expected to put in a bigger series than they have done, the seamer and leg-spinner have managed to fly under the radar somewhat thanks to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel's success.

Should South Africa flounder, even in patches, the duo's shortfalls will be exposed. Disclaimer: this is in no way an indictment of their long-term value, instead mere isolation in England.

Philander perhaps needed a grounding series after his lofty start to Test cricket, while Tahir – as a genuine leg-spinner in a country largely devoid of the stuff for two decades – will never be short of the spotlight.

Coach Gary Kirsten has spoken fondly of his – and his side's – deep desire to rise to number one. It's very much prevalent in their preparation, their thinking, their speaking. Conversion on the field, though, will this week define all the elements.

Whether those variables tabulate as a single digit – No 1 Test team – probably depends more on the opposition's bid to beat their struggles than anything additional the tourists need to muster.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>England:</i> Sticking <b>Graeme Swann's</b> animated figure on the match programme backfired at Headingley, but shouldn't be the case if printed at Lord's. Dangerous in his usual capacity, the spinner is sure to prove even more so on the back of his Headingley exit. Characteristically outspoken, he'll be the first to profess the need to backchat the selectors with a great performance at a venue that has served him well.

<i>South Africa:</i> A series that was always going to define the promise of 2003 and the improvement of 2008 is again hinging on the performance of the Proteas skipper. Prolific at Lord's, where he sports a century, double-century and average understandably over 100, history suggests <b>Graeme Smith</b> is due another big one.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><br>2012: Second Test: Match drawn at Headingley<br>2012: First Test: South Africa won by an innings and 12 runs at The Oval<br>2010: Fourth Test: South Africa won by an innings and 74 runs at the Wanderers<br>2010: Third Test: Match drawn at Newlands<br>2009: Second Test: England won by an innings and 98 runs at Kingsmead

<b>Prediction</b><br>It's time for for a change of the guard again. South Africa to take from England what England took from India. Tight, but triumph nonetheless, for Smith's men at Lords.

Online betting firm <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>Sky Bet</b></a> have England at 11/4 to win in the third Test. South Africa enjoy odds of 6/4, while a draw is placed at 11/4. Visit Sky Bet for the latest <a href='' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><b>cricket betting</b></a>.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>England:</i> Andrew Strauss (captain), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Matt Prior (wicketkeeper), Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, 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> 16 to 20 August<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> Simon Taufel and Kumar Dharmasena<br><B>Third umpire