England will embark on a long and arduous tour of South Africa today accompanied by a joke. It will follow them around wherever they go and by the time they return in late January, win, lose or draw – maybe especially if they win – they will be heartily tired of it.
The simple one-liner is that England can save on hotel bills this trip because so many of the team will be able to stay with close relatives. Hilarious, what? But in the eyes of South Africans – and, the feeling grows, a burgeoning number of English followers – it also carries a genuine pertinence.
Four of England's squad for both the limited overs and Test series were born in South Africa. The captain, Andrew Strauss and the wicketkeeper Matt Prior came to England with their families as boys, but this will probably not stop South Africans claiming them as their own in the next three months.
If this would be grossly unfair, the links of Kevin Pietersen and the newcomer Jonathan Trott may provide more sport. Both players were born, educated and learned their cricket in South Africa before concluding that the grass was greener in the land of one of their parents. Pietersen's mother and Trott's father were born in England.
Both were prepared to spend years qualifying to play for England and Pietersen's performances alone have made him easily acceptable. He has been out of the side recovering from Achilles surgery which was complicated by becoming infected and although he had his first batting net yesterday for three months he will not join the party in South Africa until next week.
Trott is determined to demonstrate that he belongs more in Birmingham than Cape Town – an odd desire perhaps but there you are – and he made a wonderful century on his Test debut at The Oval in August. But there is no doubt that a pair of South Africans playing for England in South Africa will lend a certain frisson to proceedings. Andy Flower, the team's coach, made it as a plain as biltong yesterday that both men were welcome in his squad. He is probably also aware that given the brittle nature of England's middle order in all forms of the game lately, but especially Test cricket, that both may be needed.
"People have qualified to play for England for quite a long time," he said. "That's the way it is and that's the way it has been. I don't know if it is a direct reflection on English cricket. The England teams have historically had people like Allan Lamb, Tony Greig, Graeme Hick involved so I don't see this as being any different to that. I am quite comfortable with the commitment shown by these guys. These guys are very much part of the team and very much part of English cricket."
Trott's case was scrutinised further this week when he was mentioned in Michael Vaughan's newly published autobiography, Time to Declare. Vaughan recorded in his diary after England's series deciding defeat to South Africa at Edgbaston last year that he saw Trott celebrating with South Africa, patting them on the back as they returned to their dressing room. "It hit home what English cricket has become like," Vaughan wrote. Later in the book, Vaughan paid tribute to Trott's century at The Oval, though the praise was slightly qualified: "I suppose you could wish he was a bit more English, but after such a brilliant debut it appeared as though we had found another top quality batsman."
Trott is not certain to start in England's Test team, but presumably will be offered the chance to make a claim by being included in the team for the one-day series preceding it. His debut bore the hallmark of a tough competitor.
The introduction of Trott is one thing but the return of Pietersen is what England must now crave. That they won the Ashes without him was a credit to Andrew Strauss's leadership and the team's response at the last but nobody would want to go to South Africa without him, and not because he has good local knowledge of the best restaurants.
Pietersen's value to England has become immeasurable but Flower gave it a bash. "He brings a superb record, he brings flair, he brings confidence and he brings the ability to counter attack. We beat Australia with a very limited contribution from him. If we had to go and play in South Africa without him we would do that. But his return is important to us. He's world class and quite a special player. He has got a special talent and a special confidence and him being out there with us is a huge boon."
When England toured South Africa five years ago they crucially won the Test series as a precursor to the 2005 Ashes and lost the one-dayers. They will start as long second favourites in all formats this time, although they will be encouraged by their recent one-off victory in the Champions Trophy.
South Africa will play hard and uncompromisingly propelled by the seriously fast bowling of Dale Steyn, Wayne Parnell and Morne Morkel. England are less rapid in the absence of Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison but Flower insisted they had an attack to take 20 wickets in all conditions.
He referred to the mission statement of the England and Wales Cricket Board, which is aimed at becoming the No 1 Test side in the world. At present England are fifth. "We have had a look at the rankings system and even if we win every single Test match from now it will take us to a certain time in 2011 to become number one in the world. That is our ultimate goal but we also have to realise that it is a hell of a long way off statistically. It's a longer path than some people appreciate. We need to target the number four position firstly. That is our goal. We have to practise and train and live with that in mind."
That process of practising, training and living begins when they hit the runway in Johannesburg tomorrow morning – whoever they stay with.
Andy Flower was speaking in association with the Sky Sports ECB Coach Education Programme which has trained more than 23,000 coaches since 2006.Reuse content