The Schedule of the four test series is as follows

Recommendation

England to win the series at 3-1 Ladbrokes

         · Sat Dec 26 – Wed Dec 30 1st Test Kingsmead, Durban

  • · Sat Jan 2 – Wed Jan 6 2nd Test Newlands, Cape Town
  • · Thu Jan 14 – Mon Jan 18 3rd Test New Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg
  • · Fri Jan 22 – Tue Jan 26 4th Test Super Sport Park, Centurion

South Africa, the number one test side in the world rankings, recently lost their first overseas tour since 2006. That said the relevance of the loss is limited as the test series in India was played on difficult turning pitches.

There are question-marks about both squads. For England the main issues to be resolved are:

- Who opens with Cook after the Moeen Ali experiment failed against Pakistan? All the indications are that Alex Hales will get the first chance. Hales would become Cook’s eighth opening partner since Andrew Strauss’ retirement

- After Ian Bell was dropped, who bats three? This is a contest between recalled Nick Compton and Gary Balance, with Compton likely to get the first chance.

- Who keeps wicket?. Bairstow is the man in possession, and should begin the series ahead of Buttler who returned to such great form in the UAE One day games.

- Who, in the absence of the injured Mark Wood, will be third seamer behind Anderson and Broad?. If fit, this should be Finn but all of Footitt, Woakes and Jordan are in contention

For South Africa, questions abound.

“There is a lot of work to do with the Test side,” coach Russell Domingo admitted. “Let’s not be naive about that. There are a lot of spots that people have questions about.”

In a bid to better balance their side, South Africa have asked AB De Villiers to keep wicket for the first two Tests. De Villiers was the only keeper named in the 13-man squad. That he is being asked to do this, despite a back problem, reflects the fragility of the batting in India and its inexperience.

Vernon Philander has been ruled out of the first test as he recovers from torn ankle ligaments, allowing both Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada to keep their places in the squad. South Africa have included just one spinner in Dane Piedt, opting for a containing, rather than attacking spinner at home.

For this series both sides rely on four key world class players each. For England that is Cook, Root, Anderson and Broad. For South Africa: Amla, De Villiers, Steyn-and Morkel. In what could be a very close series the absence of any of these players through injury could tip the balance.

In terms of playing conditions, South African pitches are hard and offer pace. Generally “new ball” pitches in that they offer movement for 20-25 overs and then are good to bat on. Typically Jo’burg and Centurion, the venues for the final two tests, offer the most pace.

One of the most frequently used phrases in Test cricket these days is that it is difficult to win away. The England coach Trevor Bayliss said only this week

“To win away from home is very difficult, The simple fact is we are playing the best team at home. We are under no illusions it will be a difficult tour.”

Then we look at prices, as follows for a series victory

South Africa 4/7

England 3/1

Draw 9/2

I’ve described above that these are two teams with issues, 3 or 4 world class players each and that in effect South Africa are a side in transition. I can’t have England at 3/1 here, and think it is far closer than the series odds imply.

Recommendation

England to win the series at 3-1 Ladbrokes