The last few weeks have been a topsy-turvy ride for England and South Africa. From the ecstacy at Lord's to the sheer agony at Trent Bridge to their women counterparts winning the World Cup, England have endured it all as they head to The Kennington Oval for the third match of the four-match Test series against the Proteas. The visitors, after what looked like a completely disorganised performance in the series opener, found their mojo with their charming skipper returning to the helm and handed out a sound thrashing at Trent Bridge.
The series is level (1-1) as The Oval welcomes both teams for its 100th Test match. The teams will need to regroup after a long break between the Tests. The Proteas players had split up during the break and some went sight-seeing while others caught up with mates or played golf. They could very well afford to. The first match had gone awry and awfully deviated from their expectations but they were back with a bang in the second and outplayed England in all departments, so much so that the hosts declared an emergency and called up a couple of uncapped players.
The England side of things
It wasn't the loss at Trent Bridge that made England take a drastic step. It was the manner in which they lost. A 340-run bridge between the sides is a fair reflection of the difference in performances. One could argue that the Lord's contest was also lop-sided but South Africa's woes were easily fixable ones unlike England's. A brittle top order and a couple of unsure players combined with a wasted bowler do not reek confidence.
They have called up Tom Westley and Dawid Malan to the squad and the former is confirmed to fit in the top order, most likely at no.3 with Root continuing to play at 4. Toby Roland-Jones is expected to take Mark Wood's position although Wood has recovered from a heel injury. That two to three new players are ushered in does not mean England's troubles are fixed. Their handling of Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel left a lot to be desired. Even Keshav Maharaj was handled with little respect and this cost them in the end.
That said, much of England's problems stem from an approach that could best be described as fit for limited-overs cricket. It was bizarre to watch the likes of Johnny Bairstow and Joe Root perishing to attacking shots when the situation screamed to be dour. The England Test team under Andy Flower would have scoffed at those dismissals. Unless they sit down and change their mindset, England will have another tough outing unless the visitors end up making a lot of mistakes, which they usually don't.
South Africa have lesser worries
South Africa's major problem after the loss in the first Test was unimaginative captaincy from the stand-in skipper, Dean Elgar, and a few extras which cost them big. Well aware that these flaws could easily be ironed out, du Plessis inspired his team and led them with panache to put up a near-complete performance.
The bowlers stepped up in unison to deliver a superb performance and the addition of Chris Morris eased the pressure on the others. The return of the tall and lean but intimidating Kagiso Rabada should further bolster the attack. They have a very flexible cricketer in Keshav Maharaj and he completes the attack with his ability to switch between defensive and attacking bowling.
The batting isn't as assured with the addition of extra bowling all-rounders making them a tad soft in the belly of the batting line-up. JP Duminy has been asked to return home and Aiden Markram has been retained but if they ponder an extra batsman, which is a bleak possibility given their performance in the last game, it will in all likelihood be Theunis de Bruyn. But for now Morris' stunning spell in the second innings should give him one more game at the least.
* Since 2010, South Africa have lost a mere 7 away Tests in 35 matches played. 5 of those have come in sub-continental conditions and one in a dead rubber in Australia (day-night match in Adelaide). The Lord's Test can be termed as their only hiccup in greener pastures since 2010.
* In the last seven games at The Kennington Oval, the captain winning the toss has opted to bat first five times with three of them ending up in losses.
* There have been six scores of 400+ at The Oval since 2010 with the highest being South Africa's 637/2 declared in 2012.
* Since 2010, Hashim Amla has 1341 runs against England in 11 Tests at an average of 74.50.
* Stuart Broad has been England's most prolific bowler against the Proteas since 2010 with 38 wickets in 11 Tests with an innings best of 6/17.
* Alastair Cook averages a lowly 34.75 against South Africa in his whole career with that average dropping to 29.00 considering Tests after 2010. This is his lowest career average against any Test playing nation.
* Hashim Amla hit 311* here in 2012, the only triple hundred by a South African in Tests.
* The Oval has also witnessed an enraged Devon Malcolm getting hit on the head by a Fanie de Villiers bouncer in 1994. The fiersome pacer returned to scalp 9/57.
England are likely to stick with Liam Dawson ahead of another fast bowler although the conditions on offer could reprieve Mark Wood from being dropped. Westley will slot in at 3 for Ballance while Roland-Jones will be a shoo in for Wood or Dawson.
Alastair Cook, Keaton Jennings, Tom Westley, Joe Root (c), Johnny Bairstow (wk), Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Liam Dawson, Stuart Broad, Toby Roland-Jones, James Anderson.
South Africa will have less worries to ponder about with the return of Rabada. He should be a straight swap for Duanne Olivier. The rest of the line-up is unlikely to change although it remains to be seen of South Africa continue to persist with de Kock at 4.
Heino Kuhn, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock (wk), Faf du Plessis (c), Temba Bavuma, Vernon Philander, Chris Morris, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel.