Sidebottom gives a hint to play the extra bowler

Selectors face usual dilemma over balance as Anderson keeps injury at bay

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
tech
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor