The prospect of both teams being led by new captains adds extra intrigue and unpredictability to the first Test of England’s four-match series against South Africa, starting Thursday, when England hopes to settle quickly under Joe Root and nurture early signs of dominance over the Proteas this summer.
Success in the Tests for England would add to ODI and Twenty20 series victories over the touring South Africans.
While those limited overs series gave England reason to be optimistic, this is the one that really matters, an opportunity to register successive Test series wins over South Africa for the first time since the 1964-65 season after England won in South Africa last year.
It’s a new England to begin the Test summer, though, with Root taking control for the first time in the opening match at Lord’s, South Africa-born Keaton Jennings expected to play his first home Test and open the batting alongside former captain Alastair Cook, and Gary Ballance likely to be given another chance at No. 3.
With an injury-hit bowling lineup, seamer Toby Roland-Jones is in line for his debut at his home ground, while Mark Wood hasn’t played Test cricket for nearly two years. They are required with Chris Woakes and Jake Ball out. Quick bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad _ key to England’s success in South Africa 18 months ago have recovered from injury and provide important experienced fixtures in the changing England landscape.
For the new skipper, the perennial question applies for top batsmen who take on additional responsibility: Will the burden of captaincy suppress Root’s outstanding early Test batting record of 11 centuries, nearly 5,000 runs and an average of 52.80? And will Root’s famously serene demeanor be harmed by the intense glare England’s Test captain is under?
“I think it’s important to be yourself in terms of leadership,” Root said. “I might be slightly more serious, but I want to have fun and the guys to have fun playing out there.
“The more you can create that environment where they are able to enjoy it, the more relaxed they are and generally the better they play. As much as possible when you’re performing under pressure, you need to be nice and calm and relaxed.”
While England’s new era under Root was planned and has been prepared for since the start of the year, it was only confirmed this week that South Africa will be led by opening batsman Dean Elgar at Lord’s with regular skipper Faf du Plessis missing the series-opener to be at home with his wife after the birth of their first child.
Elgar has no captaincy experience at international level and the sudden change won’t help a South African team experiencing a mini-decline, and under pressure.
South Africa slumped to a group-stage exit at the Champions Trophy, has lost successive limited-overs series to England, and must now play at Lord’s without stalwarts Du Plessis and, gratingly for many South African cricket followers, AB de Villiers.
De Villiers’ expected absence for all four Tests is part of his plan to rest regularly from the longer format to prolong his international career, but it still means that South Africa is without a player described as one of the best batsmen of his generation for a marquee series in England.
South Africa is set to give 33-year-old Heino Kuhn his Test debut to open with Elgar after Kuhn proved himself in local conditions with an unbeaten double-century and a century on South Africa “A” team’s tour of England last month.
Du Plessis’ place in the middle order will be filled by either Theunis de Bruyn, who has played just one Test, or Aiden Markram, who is uncapped.
Overall, there are signs of vulnerability that England can home in on, with South Africa coach Russell Domingo saying it will be important for his team to “absorb pressure” in the series. Domingo’s future probably depends on the outcome of the series, with his contract up next month.
South Africa does have its top batsman, Hashim Amla, and top seam bowler, Vernon Philander, for the opening Test, but will need to show fighting qualities in a difficult situation.
Elgar is the right leader for that, according to Domingo.
“He is a gutsy player,” Domingo said. “He epitomizes South African cricket to the tee.”