England moved to East London yesterday. There may have been more auspicious places in which to prepare for a crucial Test series but, if nothing else – and there is nothing else – it should ensure that they concentrate on the task at hand.
They will play two warm-up matches of two days each later this week and that will be that. It seems a peculiar way to prepare for Test cricket, not playing a single first-class match, but that is the essence of the modern tour. South Africa must worry slightly that they will be still more undercooked.
After a few days at home, the host country's squad of 15 will assemble for a training camp in the equally unprepossessing backwater of Potchefstroom. They will play no matches at all, merely train. The last time that many of the squad played a match of longer than 50 overs was the Third Test against Australia last April.
England should feel good about themselves. There may have been a slightly unsatisfactory element to their one-day series victory which they secured on Friday when the fifth and final match was abandoned, like the first, without a ball being bowled, but it was still well merited. Not only was it their first limited-overs triumph in the country, it was also the first time they had won more than one match in a series.
It will not count for much when the two sides meet in their main assignment of the winter – a Test rubber of four matches – but England's step will unquestionably be springier. Winning tourists are happy tourists. They begin to see the country in a new light and in such a mood East London may come to resemble an earthly paradise.
Not everything in the garden is rosy. Jimmy Anderson's troublesome right knee needed another injection in Durban yesterday, where he stayed behind after his colleagues left. The splendid seamer Mark Davies has been added to the squad as cover, Durham's fourth member.
Whatever Anderson's fate, England have some tough decisions to make. The only cast-iron certainty is that the XI which secured the Ashes at The Oval in August will not be the XI which will go out at Centurion in 10 days at the start of the attempt to reclaim the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy. Two of their biggest stars of recent vintage are not with the squad – Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison retired and overlooked respectively – and another, Kevin Pietersen, will return.
The conundrum which England will resolve in East London (not the first place you would think of to begin plotting world domination) is a familiar one. Even in a post-Fred world, they must still decide whether to play five batsmen or six, four bowlers or five. Without any concrete evidence so far, and with form to be assessed this week at Buffalo Park, the team which will play in the First Test might be: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior, Wright, Broad, Swann, Anderson and Onions. That would show three changes from the side which so smartly annexed the Ashes. Apart from Flintoff and Harmison, Ian Bell would be missing, and, apart from Pietersen, Onions and – for his debut – Wright would come in.
This would be extremely harsh on Bell, who made a handsomely appointed 72 in the first innings at The Oval in which he was England's top-scorer. But Trott, who was making his debut, scored 117 in the second innings and has spent the first part of this tour impressing the management with his steely determination and solid form. Poor Bell, now out of the one-day side, has not had a chance, though the news that he scored 53 for England's Performance Programme XI in the match against Highveld Tigers last week was unwelcome. It is the sort of innings that it has become too easy to associate with him, getting in only to get out, neither one thing nor the other.
Towards the end of the summer, it seemed as though Collingwood might struggle for his place. He had an increasingly indifferent Ashes and by the end looked a weary and spent cricketer. How that has altered. Collingwood is once more full of the joys and was rightly named man of the one-day series. He is shoo-in for the No 5 position. Bell's brightest hope of playing is if England choose to field six batsmen.
It is possible that a quartet of bowlers could finish off South Africa but their batting order is formidable and Strauss and Andy Flower think highly of Wright's spirit. England will set much store by Anderson and Broad, whose reputation took an immense leap upwards with his wonderful, climactic burst of 5 for 37 against Australia. Onions was unfortunate to be dropped for that match and his habit of bowling incisive first spells makes him especially appealing.
Ryan Sidebottom picked up another side strain while playing for the Performance side and although England played it down, he seems lately to get one part of his body in perfect condition just before another breaks down. Anderson is the bigger concern. But England can never have travelled to East London in better heart.