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.
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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, right). 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, 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 will be barely a quiet moment as Anderson knows. While, on the one hand, it is inexcusable, Olympics or no Olympics, that this significant rubber between two magnetic teams at the height of their powers, has been reduced to three matches, it is, on the other, extremely helpful that there is a proper gap between matches.
None of the matches will be back to back when the players of both teams have no time to draw breath before planting stumps in another town. Each of the trio starts on a Thursday and ends on a Monday if not before, with 10 days before the coin is tossed again. "There's not going to be time to ease into the series," said 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."
At 29 and at the peak of his powers, Anderson is as ready for this as he has ever been. His career stats say he has taken 267 wickets at 30.06 but in 35 Tests since the beginning of the 2009 summer he has 150 at 25.86 which is a different kettle of swing altogether.
He still does not take his wickets as quickly as Dale Steyn, the South African who is No 1 in the world, but then nobody does. In his home conditions at this time in his life, Anderson and his chums are ready for this.
While Anderson swatted away questions about the distraction caused by Kevin Pietersen's continuing wrangles over his future (there is no distraction, insisted Anderson), there remain latent worries about England's list of niggling injuries. Matt Prior, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann have all had recent cortisone injections to curb pain in various bodily parts.
"I don't think it's a huge issue," Anderson said. "You get injuries and niggles from time to time and often the best way of dealing with them is injections. I think they're very common throughout cricket and throughout sport. It's nothing that we really worry about." But that holds good only if they all take the field shipshape and Bristol fashion tomorrow morning.Reuse content