South Africa arrive on Wednesday. They come bristling with a battery of fast bowlers whose intent is clear: to blast out England. If they are not quite pawing at the ground (yet), their final preparations on the Southern Cape last week were not spent on teaching them how to doff their floppy hats to incoming English batsmen.
If they are a squad still beset by selection controversy and the exodus of talented cricketers overseas (usually to England), they show every sign of gaining strength from these travails. By a quirk of past performances it so happens that the season's second, much-anticipated tourists are a place behind England in the ICC Test champion-ship – fourth plays third.
But these tourists have been undefeated for eight Test series in a row stretching back two years, of which they had won seven until India gained a last-ditch victory on a crumbling, under-prepared pitch at Kanpur in April to level matters. They have won seven of eight one-day competitions since the World Cup.
They are in business and mean business. It has taken South Africa time and acrimonious debate but they appear to possess a squad who are not only full of conviction but all of whom believe they are there on merit, not skin colour.
Since South Africa have failed to win any of the three Test series they have played in this country since 1994 – two drawn rubbers bracket a defeat – they will not begin as favourites. But for England the difference between playing New Zealand and South Africa is about the distance between them, some 7,500 miles.
"We have always looked at this tour and the one to Australia later this year," said South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur. "We have built over the last two years and I feel we have reached a point where we have a unit and team capable of beating any side in the world on their day." This is not the usual pie in the sky. Arthur, a surprise appointment three years ago, has worked out his strategy with the captain, Graeme Smith (who expects to be fit for the First Test, despite the hamstring he pulled in the Indian Premier League).It may not be the embodiment of cricketing sophistication but it threatens to be brutally effective.
"It was one of the big decisions we made last year when we looked at our bowling and restructured it slightly. We decided we needed three bowlers on the field at all times who could bowl at over 140kph and we've got that now."
In old money that is 86mph, the velocity at which the batsman is kept not so much honest but distinctly wary. It meant the jettisoning of the old warhorse, Shaun Pollock. Those propelling at the necessary velocity are the bustling newcomer Morne Morkel, veteran Makhaya Ntini, the reserve duo of Andre Nel and comeback kid Monde Zondeki, and above all Dale Steyn, officially ranked as the world's top fast bowler for the very good reason that in 12 Tests since last October he has taken 78 wickets at 16.24 runs each.
Arthur's assessment was the more chilling for being matter-of-fact. "All the bowlers have clearly defined roles but the key was having three strike bowlers at all times. This means the batters are always thinking back rather than forward. When he comes in you're winning the battle before you start. I think our attack is the best in the world and we can take 20 wickets in any conditions." The evidence is compelling, at home, in Pakistan and India.
But South Africa remain tortured both by the sight of the winning post and by history. Three times they have led England in away Test series after a gap of 29 years, three times they have been pegged back. The historical angst probably runs deeper. It is 16 years since they were readmitted to Test cricket, yet still their selection policy is riven.
The need to redress the balance of decades of apartheid – still lost on some white South Africans – has caused no end of trouble because of the imposition of quotas. There is an official ruling that each 15-man squad can have a maximum of eight white players. The party to England has more.
Arthur has been caught in the middle and had a public spat with Cricket South Africa's president, Norman Arendse, before the tour of India in the spring. He appears unaffected. "Selection has been hugely difficult," he said. "It's a job which brings its own unique challenges and my question to the board has always been about balancing getting a winning team on the field with transformation.
"Now I believe Graeme Smith and I have the team we want, our team for the first time, the strongest we could have." If he is right, England could be on the back foot in every sense.Reuse content