“We’ll just try to make sure no one goes into the game under the weather” is not the most belligerent battle cry for a leader but that was one of the messages from Joe Root before the first Test at Centurion. “Once more unto the ibuprofen, dear friends, once more” does not work that well, either. But a beleaguered Root has been doing his best to balance positivity with pragmatism before a much-anticipated series.
It is very inconvenient that his squad has been attacked by a flu bug since their arrival in South Africa and much more agonising that Ben Stokes’s father, Ged, is currently seriously ill in a Johannesburg hospital, which cast doubts over Stokes’ participation in the Test match. The update from the ECB on Christmas morning was cautiously optimistic. Ged Stokes had “shown signs of improvement. He has responded positively to treatment and is now in a stable condition.” As a consequence Stokes was able to take a full part in England’s Christmas Day practice.
However three players were not fit enough to attend that session: Jack Leach, Chris Woakes and a new victim of the bug, Ollie Pope. So this trio must be considered very doubtful starters for the Test. No one has been ruled out, not even the two late replacements from Somerset, Craig Overton and Dom Bess. “Could they play?” Root was asked. “Yes, they wouldn’t have been called up if that wasn’t the case and we want to make sure we’ve got all bases covered and that we can go in with whatever balance to the side we want to try to take 20 poles.”
Unsurprisingly in his current plight Root is keen to point out that strange things can come to pass in adversity: “When unfortunate circumstances happen it provides opportunities for people to step up, take responsibility and do something special.” At Centurion there is the possibility that Jonny Bairstow, for example, may now be drafted into the final XI, which would be a chance to make himself undroppable for the rest of the series.
The selection for the first Test was tricky enough for England without all the recent complications. Traditionally the playing surface favours pace bowlers rather than spinners so both sides have been contemplating going without a specialist spinner. At least South Africa’s Keshav Maharaj is in the peak of health.
Beyond the spaghetti bowl of motorways that surround the stadium here there is more green grass in evidence on the pitch than was witnessed in Hamilton, New Zealand, where England spurned a specialist spinner. At Centurion there should be more bounce and the possibility of sideways movement. If the forecast for hot weather is reliable Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s captain, expects the cracks to open as the game progresses and then “the ball can misbehave; it can go up and down”, a situation that excites tall, fast bowlers.
There is now every chance that Jimmy Anderson will return to the fray, which will mean that he chalks up his 150th Test match. Already he has propelled 2,340 more deliveries in Test cricket than any other pace bowler. The West Indies’ Courtney Walsh takes second place on this list. Anderson was the most effective of England’s pacemen in Benoni recently and there is no doubt that he has impressed his captain. “He used that time away to improve himself physically,” said Root, “and by doing this he set a really good example to the group, such is his drive and determination. He has done so much work on his strength and fitness. He’s in as good a shape as I’ve seen.” Ideally England would like Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer alongside him but that will depend much more on fitness assessments than form.
Du Plessis has a clearer idea of his team. Expect debuts for Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorius, who is likely to fill the all-rounder slot at No 7. If South Africa were to omit Maharaj, perhaps an unnecessary gamble since they have four seamers, they would give a debut to Beuran Hendricks or Dane Paterson, both pace bowlers.
It seems that the mood around South African cricket has lightened over the past two weeks since the appointments of the recent giants of their game, Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, to take charge of affairs beyond the boundary. Du Plessis acknowledged that over the last six months “it feels that there has been more weight on my shoulders. There haven’t been the right structures in place off the field, though that’s no excuse for some of the cricket we’ve played. But the last fortnight has been a breath of fresh air and there has been a very positive feel to our training.
“I’ve been around a long time now but even I feel like there has been so much more wisdom around our dressing room. And I think: ‘Why hasn’t that been there for the last ten years or so?’ Recently Australia have had that with Langer, Ponting and Waugh. We need that, too.”
Meanwhile Root is more concerned about the presence of his current players in the England dressing room throughout the Centurion Test match. In particular he knows that Stokes has been the fulcrum of the side over the past nine months. But any selectorial issues that relate to him will be dictated by Stokes himself. “It is absolutely up to him whether he plays,” said Root. “Family comes first for Ben. All we can do is throw all our support behind him.”