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The huge challenge awaiting South Africa's batsmen

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England_South_Africa_CricketSouth Africa take on England in a four match Test series which is expected to be the biggest bilateral Test series of the year, after the Ashes of course. Known as high profile, highly successful travelers, the Proteas boast some terrific batsmen in their line-up. England, on the other hand, have a new captain in Joe Root and, with Chris Woakes and Jake Ball out injured, field a different looking Test side.

Faf du Plessis, attending to his wife and new born baby in South Africa will miss the Lord's Test, as will AB de Villiers, who is on an extended hiatus from the longer format of the game. South Africa are used to playing without de Villiers in Tests by now, having won series against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka without him in the past year. But du Plessis, their charismatic skipper who oozes energy, will be sorely missed. Dean Elgar, the senior pro in the side, will lead the unit in the first Test.

South Africa have lost not only du Plessis the skipper, but du Plessis the batsman who spreads control and calm in Test cricket. The middle-order looks woefully inadequate against a strong England pace attack, but they do have some talented young guns on paper to counter that.

Dropping Stephen Cook and introducing the new opener

The top order has a breath of fresh air with Stephen Cook being dropped after his woes outside the off-stump. Dean Elgar will open with Heino Kuhn, the talented wicketkeeper & batsman who has ample experience in the domestic circuit. Kuhn showcased his talents in England for the South Africa A side and in the main team in the warm-up games.

But James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood will pose an altogether different challenge. Elgar, predominantly a wait-and-watch player, is fairly accustomed to English conditions thanks to his stint opening the batting for Somerset. With Anderson's inswingers a huge threat, the stand-in skipper needs to be watchful. Kuhn, on the other hand, is a newbie at this level and the England seamers are known to intimidate rookies with both bounce and words.

If Kuhn and Elgar can get past the initial Broad-Anderson spell, there is hope for the South Africans. Their main challenge will be to play out the new ball, even if it means not getting too many runs on the board. England pitches generally favour batsmen after the initial few overs, so if the openers can minimise the early damage, South Africa have an avenue to channel their attack.

The middle-order sans de Villiers & du Plessis

With du Plessis unavailable for the opening game, South Africa will look to Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Theunis de Bruyn in the top half of the middle-order. Amla conquered England with a stunning triple hundred a few years back, but he is no longer the same batsman. Bowlers have exposed his weakness against the moving ball and bouncers; he can expect quite a lot of pacy bouncers from the likes of Wood, Stokes and Broad.

Duminy was pushed to no. 4 in the last two series and showed signs of hitting it off in the new role but familiar failings have shown up on occasion. If the ball swings around, expect the England seamers to make light work of the much-criticised left-hander. Theunis de Bruyn, who was unfairly pushed up to open the innings in New Zealand, should be back in his more preferred middle-order slot, but a duck in the warm-up game does not quite instill confidence.

The England seamers are ruthless against newbies and de Bruyn will have a tough time unless he puts his head down and does real hard work in the nets. There is no doubting his talent after some eye-catching performances for the A team and his franchise, but International Cricket is a different ball game.

Amla will need to play the anchor role in this middle-order. He is the wall behind which the inexperienced South African middle-order can build their innings. His susceptibility to the short ball is well known and Amla needs to counter his instincts against England's hit-the-deck seamers. Duminy, meanwhile, needs to be his flashy self, as this saw him achieve success against Sri Lanka. While he can milk the pacers on his day, he should be wary of Moeen Ali. Off-spinners have troubled him in the past and Duminy needs to ensure that he does not throw it away against a spinner after negotiating the seamers.

The Bavuma-de Kock pair

The lower middle-order was the difference between Australia and South Africa in the fiercely contested Test series last year. Quinton de Kock’s flamboyance at the crease and Bavuma’s dogged approach contrasted each other perfectly while weathering out the opposition.

De Kock loves to take the attack to the opposition and is virtually the connecting link between South Africa's batting line-up and the tail. Bavuma, known for his gritty resolve and steely temperament, will need to put up a strong face against a fabulous England attack.

The battle between Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Wood and de Kock and Bavuma will be one of the highlights of the series. Bavuma's biggest challenge will be to convert his starts into bigger scores while de Kock will once again need to rally a lower order consisting of Philander, Maharaj and Rabada.

The complete England attack

Anderson with his swing, Broad with his seam movement, Wood with sheer pace and Stokes with his awkward bouncers complete a fiercely competitive England pace attack. They have the wily off-spinning all-rounder, Moeen Ali, to assist them. Toby Roland-Jones, who has been impressive in County cricket, will likely sit out the first Test but is surely ready to step in if injuries hamper one of the main fast bowlers.

Each of the English bowlers have different strengths, making this one of their most complete bowling attacks. The absence of Chris Woakes will hurt them if the likes of Amla or de Kock get going, but they have picked the best of the players available.

Anderson and Broad are coming back from injuries but if they hit their stride early on and get that red cherry seaming & swinging around, does South Africa really have the strength in the middle-order to counter it?

 

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