After enough limited-overs matches to open a shop, England begin a Test series on Wednesday. There is always a frisson of excitement in the few days beforehand which the closest, most thrilling short forms of the game can never equal.
This is an authentic big event as well. South Africa might have been deprived of the official status of No 1 by some quirk in the ratings system that only three people in the world properly understand (and as with the Schleswig-Holstein question, it is probable that one of them is dead, another has gone mad thinking about it and the third has forgotten it) but nobody else truly believes it.
The side led by Graeme Smith – with an approach so hard-nosed that he makes Ricky Ponting seem like a flower-arranger – have had a splendid couple of years. They won in England and Australia, drew in India and the only blot on the escutcheon – a classic case of eye off the ball – was losing at home to Australia early in 2009.
Neither team is properly honed. Many of the South Africans have played no first-class cricket for nine months, England's final preparations have consisted of two two-day games against indifferent opposition. In a way then, they start even.
England will be weighing the usual options: five bowlers or four, five batsmen or six. Whether outings against an Invitation XI in Buffalo Park did much to resolve the issue is doubtful, though Ryan Sidebottom reminded all of his existence yesterday by taking 5 for 42 and swinging the ball.
Under the stewardship of Andrew Strauss, captain, and Andy Flower, coach, England have usually gone for five bowlers even if Andrew Flintoff was unavailable. On the one occasion they played only four, in Barbados last March, West Indies made 749 for 9.
The issue is one of balance as much as of form. If England play six batsmen, Ian Bell will probably bat at six and the attack will consist of three seamers – Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and either Sidebottom or the favourite until yesterday, Graham Onions – with Graeme Swann as the spinner. Suddenly this option seems more viable than it has done, and it would be harsh on Bell, who made an important 72 in England's last Test, the Ashes-winning match at The Oval, to be omitted.
But the selection that has appeared to have most credence all tour would have five batsmen and five bowlers. This has two possible scenarios, the most likely having the uncapped all-rounder Luke Wright at seven. It could also be employed with Broad in that position, which would allow both Onions and Sidebottom to play.
After the teams agreed on an early draw, the Invitation XI having been bowled out for 263 after some joyous hitting by David Wiese, whose first 52 runs included 48 in boundaries, Strauss spoke of the conundrum. It is clear that England are not rushing into anything. It is not the Strauss-Flower way and is one reason why they ought to be Team of the Year in tonight's BBC Sports Personality of the Year and why Strauss would be a deserving recipient of the individual award.
The tourists also have to wait to see if Anderson, who bowled three spells yesterday, remains untroubled by his mystery condition. The signs seemed optimistic. He bowled within himself at times but his third spell was as untroubled as his first two.
"There's a case for all three options really," said Strauss. "We haven't nailed our colours to the mast on the balance issue and it would be wrong to do that before we have looked at the conditions. The case for four bowlers is that in Test cricket there has always been value in applying scoreboard pressure, putting big runs on the board. By playing the extra batsmen you give yourselves a better chance of doing that and sometimes the fourth seamer doesn't get a lot of bowling. That's the case for it.
"I maintain that whenever you pick an XI you have got to pick the XI to win the Test match. There are different ways. The five-bowler option has worked well for us in the past but you have got to be conscious of what it is that's going to win you a Test match."
The feeling, although it is changing by the minute and might change again when the Centurion pitch is revealed, is that England will eventually decide on six batsmen. It might apply scoreboard pressure but it also has the advantage of helping to secure a draw. In a four-match series, neither side will wish to go one down.
Away from home, England have lost the first Test of each of their past five series and have won only five opening matches in 29 series, the last in South Africa in 2004. Winning would be splendid but not losing would make for a happy Christmas.
The Key Battlegrounds
The captains: Perhaps the biggest clash. Graeme Smith has seen off two England captains (Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan) mid-series. Andrew Strauss looks ready for the confrontation.
The Kallis injury: The gun player, always around. Only when the all-rounder has gone will everyone quite understand what he means to the team.
The fast bowling: South Africa seem to have more firepower, and it is a big series for the potent combination of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. It's not enough for the swinger Anderson to be billed as the attack leader; he has to bowl like it regularly.
The middle-order batting: Big total will play big total and the home side, well established, look capable of setting bigger ones than the tourists.Reuse content