Whatever the infernal rankings say, the best two cricket teams in the world will be playing at The Oval tomorrow. In the official ICC lists, which have just undergone their annual revision, England remain at No 1 but South Africa, for reasons only an actuary with an algorithm might understand, have slipped to No 3.
But make no mistake, these tourists intend to be at the top by the time this risibly short three-Test series is done, which they will achieve if they win it. So closely matched are the sides in all departments that it will almost certainly come down to small margins, a cameo innings here, a tight bowling spell there, a dropped or spectacular catch anywhere.
In the latter category, England have to do better than of late (see graphic, below). Maybe they have been waiting until this moment, the most significant of the summer, to reach their zenith.
More than any other commodity, the pressure of the moment will dictate most strongly. And it is this, as Jimmy Anderson, the leader of England's bowling attack (below), pointed out yesterday, that may well separate the men from the boys come late August.
"In the past, maybe, the pressure might have got to me in particular, maybe a few other guys," he said. "But now it's more exciting. You want to play in big games. You want to test yourself against the best in the world, which is going to happen in this next few weeks. Essentially, my job is the same as it has been for the last 12, 18, 24 months. I have to go out there and set the tone, take the first over and try and bowl as accurately as I can for long periods of time.
"There's not going to be time to ease into the series," added Anderson. "We're going to have to be on top of our game from the first minute. It's going to be an intense few weeks and it's good that they're not going to be back to back. I like that fact as it's going to be really hard cricket, I think.
"There might be a bit of added pressure because it's a bigger test for us. And there might be more patience needed as they are renowned for being resilient and for soaking up pressure better than most other countries."Reuse content