England v South Africa: Key battles as hosts look to retain No1 status

William Roe takes a look at three key battles between England and South Africa ahead of the three-match Test series

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Strauss vs Smith

Modern cricketers are not privy to reveal superstitions, but Andrew Strauss will surely be glad the first Test is taking place at The Oval. Since 1994, England have failed to register a single victory over South Africa at Lord’s, while they have not been beaten by the Proteas at London’s other Test venue. Strauss’ opposite number Graeme Smith heralds a superb record as a batsmen and captain on English soil – averaging 72.20 and plundering four centuries including two doubles – and if he gets the upper hand England could be reeling. Strauss, whose place at the beginning of this summer was called into question, returned emphatically to form in the Test arena with a couple of hundreds against West Indies. Yet the Middlesex player will be keen to avoid becoming yet another England skipper to get swallowed up by the hulk of Smith.

Swann vs Tahir

With both sides so closely matched, the only area where there is clear daylight is in the spinning department. England’s Graeme Swann has 188 Test wickets at 28.57 in 44 matches, while South Africa’s Imran Tahir has just 18 wickets in seven Tests at an average of over 37. Swann loves bowling at left-handers and South Africa’s middle order includes two, JP Duminy and Jacques Rudolph. Nottinghamshire’s cheeky spinner already has the pressure of bowling with just three other front-line bowlers around him but in this series his role will be more important than ever due to the inexperience of his opposite number. Tahir holds the “unknown” factor but if England’s batsmen negotiate him safely, and there is nothing in his previous seven outings at Test level to suggest they won’t, then a strong series from Swann will lead to an English victory.

Anderson vs Steyn

James Anderson spearheads a strong England attack, likely to include Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan, with Steven Finn and Graham Onions waiting in the wings. However, they will have their work cut out when trying to compete with Dale Steyn – the number one bowler in the world – Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. The South African bowling attack is fearsome and the 29-year-old speedster Steyn, who bowls in excess of 90mph, will test England’s top order to the limit. But Anderson knows the English conditions inside out and Strauss needs his main man to be at his swinging best to stamp his authority on the series. Perhaps the biggest unknown is how the Proteas’ Philander will fare on his first tour to England. The 27-year-old is the second fastest bowler ever to reach 50 Test wickets. If he reproduces the kind of form that saw him race to that feat then England could be in for a torrid time.

Prediction: 1-1.

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