England v South Africa: The world's fiercest bowling machines set for battle

The two brilliant, varied attacks will be key to deciding who comes out on top between England and South Africa. Angus Fraser looks at their strengths – and the odd weakness

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The Independent Online

Searing Pace, Steep Bounce, Late Swing, Zippy Seam, Sustained Hostility, Ruthless Penetration, Controlled Aggression, Rugged Durability, Smothering Discipline, Unerring Consistency and a Bloody Big Heart.

Click HERE or on 'view gallery' above to launch comparison of England and South Africa's bowlers

These are the assets and characteristics that most of the best fast bowlers in the world possess and they will be on display in abundance at The Oval, Headingley and Lord's over the coming month as the two most fearsome bowling attacks in cricket, England and South Africa, compete for the prize of being rated as the best Test side in the world.

At times the cricket may not be pretty, especially for those who enjoy watching batsmen flourish, but it is sure to be exciting. Batsmen who score heavily against fast bowlers of this quality will know they have been in a battle and will rate the performances as highly as any in their careers. At the end of the three-Test series – it really should have been five – we will have a pretty good idea of who has the best attack but before a ball has been sent down in anger it is hard to assess who will dominate.

South Africa can field a more balanced side and play four fast bowlers against England's three and this gives them a slight edge in this department but Graeme Swann gives Andrew Strauss's side match-winning potential on any surface. With the weather being as it is, spin may play a minor role but a dry pitch could give England the edge.

England's bowlers also have an edge because of the cricket they have played recently. They are used to the conditions and have battle-hardened bodies. South Africa's attack are fresher but it could take them some time to run into their best form.

By then the series may have gone.

England's six of the best

James Anderson

Age 29 Tests 70 Wickets 267 Average 30.05 5-wkt hauls 12 Wkts per Test 3.8

It took Anderson some time to show his full potenti al but he is now rightly regarded as one of the best fast bowlers in the world. Anderson's action has become wonderfully grooved and he releases the ball with his wrist in a perfect position. This lets the seam act as a rudder and encourages the ball to swing. Anderson is a brilliant judge of conditions and game situations and alters his bowling accordingly. When the weather is overcast and the ball is swinging there is no better bowler in the world.

Stuart Broad

Age 26 Tests 47 Wickets 161 Average 30.42 5-wkt hauls 5 Wkts per Test 3.4

Like Anderson it took Broad some time to work out exactly what sort of bowler he is, but he has become a real handful. The all-rounder is tall and aggressive and gets in the face of batsmen. This is OK if it is controlled and he doesn't return to the days of trying to be England's "enforcer". Broad shapes the ball away from right handers and hits the pitch hard, which lets him extract any uneven bounce there may be. He also has the knack or skill of producing inspired four- or five-wicket spells.

Tim Bresnan

Age 27 Tests 14 Wickets 55 Average 26.09; 5-wkt hauls 1; Wkts per Test 3.9

Bresnan is the least sexy member of England's favoured pace attack. He is a no-nonsense fast bowler of the John Smith's beer "Have it" advert type, but this does not do justice to a fast bowler who can change his bowling to the game situation. Bresnan is probably the most versatile member of England's attack. If it is swinging, he pitches the ball up and shapes it away. If batsmen need roughing up, as India's found out in 2011, he can be hostile, and when the captain needs line and length to keep things tight he can do that too.

Steven Finn

Age 23 Tests 14 Wickets 56 Average 27.42 5-wkt hauls 3 Wkts per Test 4

Finn has the potential to be an England great. He is tall, fast and skilful but as of yet he cannot cement a regular Test place. It is frustrating for him because he has performed pretty well in Test cricket but the selectors are currently right to pick Anderson, Broad and Bresnan ahead of him. Finn is a fine bowler but he needs to bowl better than the other three to play. Test cricket is not a place to pick people on sentiment. At 23, he will get his chance soon and when he does he will be around the England team for a long time.

Graeme Onions

Age 29 Tests 9 Wickets 32 Average 29.90 5-wkt hauls 1 Wkts/Test 3.6

Onions is a fine bowler. He ambles to the wicket before his lithe, whippy body allows him to sling the ball down at an alarming pace, and he surprises batsmen because he is quicker than he looks. When conditions suit and he is bowling a full length and swinging the ball away, he is very like Anderson. When Onions bowls well he is all over batsmen. Every ball is up there searching for little chinks in a batsman's technique or mind.

Graeme Swann

Age 33 Tests 44 Wickets 188 Average 28.57 5-wkt hauls 13 Wkts per Test 4.3

Swann's skill, accuracy and versatility are vital to the England cause and allows them to play an extra batsman. Spin bowlers can be passengers for the first three days of a Test but Swann is a threat from the very first morning. Even if he is not taking wickets he normally keeps it quiet at one end, bowling 25 overs for around 60 runs. This means three seamers share just 65 overs, which is a very comfortable workload for a fast man. When a pitch spins, he is a match-winner; when it doesn't he offers control – that makes Swann a captain's dream.

South Africa's six of the best

Dale Steyn

Age 29 Tests 54 Wickets 272 Average 23.18 5-wkt hauls 17 Wkts per Test 5

There is a simple reason why Steyn tops the world rankings – he is the best bowler in the world. The right arm quick averages just over five wickets per Test, which is right up there with the all-time greats. Steyn charges in with real aggression and bowls quick away swingers. He has a fast bouncer but most of the time he aims to hit the stumps, making batsmen candidates for bowled and lbw. His lack of height means that batsmen feel they have to play at the majority of balls he bowls. Like Anderson he judges conditions and match situations very well.

Morne Morkel

Age 27 Tests 39 Wickets 139 Average 30.02 5-wkt hauls 5 Wkts per Test 3.6

Morkel has the potential to be the best fast bowler in the world. He is tall, fast and there is real spite to his bowling when he is at his best. There is something about his action – a Stephen Harmison-like flick of the wrist at the release – that provides him with a little more pace and allows him to extract a touch more bounce. Batsmen hate facing him because they feel that every ball could crunch a finger or break a rib. The contrast to Steyn makes batting at each end a totally different experience.

Vernon Philander

Age 27 Tests 7 Wickets 51 Average 14.15 5-wkt hauls 6 Wkts per Test 7.3

Philander has made a remarkable start to his Test career, becoming the second-fastest bowler ever to take 50 wickets. They have not come through good fortune – this fella is class. The right-armer gets close to the stumps, hits the seam, shapes the ball away and bowls an impeccable line and length. He reminds me of Sir Richard Hadlee. On a pitch with any lateral movement he is a handful. He is devastating with the new ball, which he uses superbly, although he can look slightly pedestrian when the ball gets old.

Jacques Kallis

Age 36 Tests 152 Wickets 276 Average 32.45 5-wkt hauls 5 Wkts per Test 1.8

Statistically Kallis is the greatest all-rounder of all time. He is at times a reluctant bowler but once he has a ball in his hand he rarely lets his captain down. That he has often been described as a medium pacer is ridiculous because in his youth he was genuinely as fast as anyone in the world. Most days now he is happy to perform a containing role but he can still turn the heat up when he gets angry or the game dictates. He has the happy knack (or ability) of taking important wickets and bowling decisive spells.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe

Age 28 Tests 5 Wickets 9 Average 49.77 5-wkt hauls 0 Wkts/Test 1.8

Tsotsobe owes his position in this elite group to the absence of Marchant de Lange, a 21-year-old fast bowler with huge potential who has returned home with a stress fracture in his lower back. At his best the left-armer is a skilful swing bowler who adds variety. Tsotsobe has an excellent one-day record but has made little impression in Tests so far. He will only play if further injuries hit the tourists.

Imran Tahir

Age 33; Tests 7; Wickets 18; Average 37.05; 5 wkt hauls 0; Wkts/Test 2.6

Tahir was meant to be the missing link for South Africa, whose powerful seam-orientated attack has always lacked a high-quality spinner to back it up. The leggie promises a lot and has had several successful stints playing county cricket but he is yet to deliver in Test cricket. England's batsmen will look to attack Tahir to place greater pressure on their fast bowlers. If he is up to it, he could take some useful wickets – if he isn't South Africa's search for a match-winning spinner will continue.