For England to win the Test series that starts against South Africa today, they must be at their peak. Anything less and they could be swept away by a team who have become accustomed to success and by any normal reckoning are the number one in the world.
The tension and sense of anticipation around Centurion yesterday were palpable. It was the peculiar sensation that always pervades significant Test series, a feeling that is never duplicated before one-day matches of any kind or in lesser long forms of the game.
But Tests between South Africa and England are as authentic as big-time sport can get. It was etched on the faces of the captains yesterday, their minds already looking forward to the toss this morning and in at least one case still formulating the balance of his team. The captains in contests of this quality invariably have an overwhelming influence on the fate of their teams and the series. In the case of Graeme Smith and Andrew Strauss, they are also opening batsmen and in effect the key wickets.
Smith and Strauss are different men with different styles but both have one significant asset in common: the respect of the players they lead. The impression that both teams would walk through walls, go the extra yard, screw their courage to the sticking place for the captains is one reason why this series may be both close and riveting.
Not much quarter can be given from either side and while England's method of putting on the squeeze may be different, no one should expect a gentlemanly affair out in the middle.
"I am very keen for players to stand up and be counted in pressure situations and if you are not willing to do that you are not going to survive in Test cricket very long," said Strauss. "At the same time it has to be done with a thoughtfulness, smartly. There's no point in getting carried away and caught up in the moment. It still needs to be calculated and controlled."
South Africa have not reached where they are today by being emollient. They play hard-nosed cricket all day. Like England they may not have had enough cricket of a non-limited overs variety lately to be thoroughly prepared but Smith all but dismissed the suggestion.
"It's more of a mindset going into the Test match," he said. "It's the long haul of being able to handle pressure and sustain performances for long periods of time as a bowler and as a batsman."
Both teams are not as strong as they would wish. South Africa have been weakened by the loss of Jacques Kallis as a bowler, England have been prevaricating for weeks on whether to play six batsmen or five bowlers. In a way, the teams face the same conundrum.
South Africa's recent success has been predicated on a five-man attack in which Kallis is the fourth seamer. But his broken rib makes him unable to bowl. Since they went to India and drew a series in late 2008, South Africa have played 15 matches, of which Kallis played in all. While he did not bowl much in all of them, he still contributed 12.6 per cent of their overs in that time and took 29 wickets. He will be missed, and the South Africans know it.
South Africa's most recent Test series was at home to Australia earlier this year when they let the euphoria of having won in Australia a few weeks previously relax them. Australia spotted weakness and bounded into a 2-0 lead. But then England managed, against odds and logic, to beat Australia at home in the summer.
There is, then, reason to believe for England but the chances of them winning must be reduced accordingly if they use only four bowlers. It would need a prominent individual performance to take 20 South African wickets.
The ground at Centurion looked yesterday as though the cabbages had just been removed from it to take to market. But Smith, who knows the place intimately, expected it to change vastly in 24 hours and indeed as the sun came out in the afternoon it began to resemble a Test cricket pitch.
South Africa have won 11 of the 14 Test matches on the ground and lost only one. Such records offer wonderful milestones but they can also be millstones. Their only loss was to England in the Test that was not a Test 10 years ago when both sides forfeited innings and England won what was effectively a one-day match by three wickets. It was later found that proceedings had been manipulated by the South Africa captain, Hansie Cronje.
Eight of the Tests have finished by the fourth day, four of them on the third, so a result one way or the other seems probable despite the lack of bowling resources on either side. England may at the last minute play five bowlers with Stuart Broad or Luke Wright at seven but that too would be a risk if there was early morning movement and a clatter of wickets. So much in Test series can depend on the opening session.
"You won't win in it that session but you can grab the momentum," said Strauss. "I think you are prepared if you are mentally in the right place. I think we learned that lesson in India last winter after going back after the bombings.
"We have had a big gap since the one-dayers and enough time to prepare ourselves mentally. We haven't had a four-day game haven't had a complete replica of Test cricket. But I am comfortable where we are, the feeling in the camp is pretty boisterous and happy, excited about what is to come. We're aware we need to have our games on tomorrow morning... you can't afford to ease into any Test cricket."
England can win, they probably will not. Should they have prevailed in the four-match rubber come 19 January they will have the scars to show for it.
First Test: Centurion Probable teams
G C Smith (capt), A G Prince, H M Amla, J S Kallis, A B De Villiers, J-P Duminy, †M V Boucher, M Morkel, P L Harris, D W Steyn, M Ntini
A J Strauss (capt) A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, G Onions
Umpires: Aleem Dar, SJ Davis
TV Umpire: AM Saheba
Fourth umpire: BG Jerling
TV: Sky Sports 1, HD1, 8.00am-4.00pm
Weather: 28C, Warm and sunny, chance of cloud
When the covers were removed yesterday a green, moist strip greeted onlookers. Doubtless it will change colour and texture overnight but there will be encouragement for the bowlers and winning the toss will not present a straightforward decision.
Number of South Africa victories in the 14 Test matches played at Centurion.Reuse content