With only two days left until the start of the Test series, South Africa appear to be in disarray. The balance, not to mention the health, of their team has been seriously affected by the injury to their star all-rounder Jacques Kallis.
It looks increasingly improbable that Kallis will have recovered sufficiently from a broken rib in time to take the field for the opening match at Centurion on Wednesday, but that is only half the trouble for the home side.
Their selectors are at odds about whether he should be replaced by an extra batsman or another, lesser, all-rounder. It is a conundrum with which England have become unhappily familiar down the years as they have attempted to come to terms with missing Andrew Flintoff.
Even now, the tourists are uncertain how they should approach this series – pack the side with batting or go into attack mode and select five bowlers – but that pales by comparison with South Africa's worries.
Kallis (below) initially injured his rib during the Twenty20 Champions League in India in October and then aggravated it while playing in the Champions Trophy. He has resorted to an oxygen chamber in an attempt to be fit in time for the first Test but fears are now growing that Kallis could miss the entire series and he has played a peripheral role in South Africa's training camp in Potchefstroom.
Rumours are abounding that one part of South Africa's selection panel would be willing to play Kallis solely as a batsman – reasonable considering he has scored more than 10,000 Test runs – but that others are unwilling to countenance such a proposition because of the complications it might cause down the order.
If Kallis fails to make it, South Africa have the option of playing their wicketkeeper Mark Boucher at number six and giving a first cap to Ryan McLaren, who is utterly unproven. Or they could also ask Alviro Petersen to make his debut as an opening batsman and push the redoubtable Ashwell Prince, who has been earmarked to open, down the order.
England can pretend as much as they like not to be concerned about the opposition's worries, but it is certain to lend perspective to their own selection doubts. It may also remind some of them of the series here five years ago when South Africa were similarly beset by the worst of all difficulties in team sports: not knowing what their best side was.
Then it was as much about quotas of black and coloured players as specific personnel but the effect was still dramatic. They came to the line thinking about who was in the team rather than what they should be doing in the match. It opened the way for a notable England victory in Port Elizabeth.
Perhaps it is understandable that South Africa are keen to concentrate on England's potential problems. Their captain Graeme Smith said yesterday that Kevin Pietersen could expect the sort of hot reception which became a minor tradition during the one-day series here almost five years ago. "He's made a lot of remarks about the country that I don't think he's ever apologised for," he said. "It's hard for people just to wash away those things and I think that's why people still give him a hard time. It creates a little bit of tension towards him."
It would be foolhardy to underestimate South Africa's team management of coach Mickey Arthur and Smith, who have taken them to the pinnacle of Test cricket in the last two years. But no Kallis is no picnic.Reuse content