Anyone who presumes they are about to attend a garden party when the real business of the winter starts here on Wednesday is deeply misguided. The nature of what is about to take place over the next five weeks was neatly delineated yesterday by Ashley Giles.
"This series is going to be a bit macho anyway," he said. "The South Africans are a bit that way, you do go toe to toe, it's a bit of a battle and that's fantastic." South Africa, as Giles knows, are perhaps the most uncompromising side in world cricket. They wear their machismo on their sleeve and if the stuff could be sold their shirts would carry its logo.
In Graeme Smith, they have a well-travelled, hard-bitten captain who is never afraid to express an opinion both on and off the field. If he has matured and mellowed a bit in his six long years in the job – he needed to – he will still not be slow in telling a few of the England players, especially those who were born in South Africa, where they should go.
As part of the phoney war that always accompanies the weeks, days and hours before the start of big series, South African players have been banned from socialising with their English counterparts, even those, as the joke goes, they went to school with.
"That's a bit of fun you always get around Test series," Giles said. "I think it just plays into our hands because we have shown so far we are just focused on the cricket. There's a real excitement around the camp I can feel which I was used to all those years ago, whereby the guys are a bit edgy, but they are working hard, everyone is pulling everyone else through at the moment. I've never known a team work so hard and be so physically fit as this one. We have a team of athletes now."
The series will be psychologically intimidating throughout, quite as fearsome in that respect as the Ashes, but the physical aspect should not be overlooked. South Africa have made no secret of their intention to hit England with searing pace, as personified by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
All this Giles knows only too well. He is in the country in his role as one of England's selectors, but five years ago he was an integral part of the team that won a series in South Africa for the first time in nearly 40 years, a senior lieutenant to the captain, Michael Vaughan. England managed to prise out a narrow victory because they were ready.
"I think we hit them a bit cold here at the start of the last series in Port Elizabeth and we have an opportunity for that again, although there will be a certain amount of revenge that they'll be looking for after the one-day series," Giles said. "There's a lot of pressure on them being at home, a lot of expectation, and the best thing we can do is concentrate on our preparation, which has been very good, and hit the ground running rather than worry about them."
The importance of starting well, of not succumbing to South Africa's preferred method, is enhanced because of the compact nature of the series. The first three of the four matches are played over three weeks and whoever noses in front will fancy their chances of staying there.
So, the tourists have to be prepared and they must have a strategy in place in time for Centurion on Wednesday morning from which they will not easily waver. That strategy is the talk of the squad and of all the hangers-on who are beginning to gather in Johannesburg. It is merely a variation on a familiar theme but it is crucial that they do not fudge it.
The fulcrum of England's policy is whether to play four bowlers or five, five batsmen or six. Last time they toured South Africa in 2004-05, their philosophy was long established. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff were at the height of their powers and they had Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones as their allies. These were the "Fab Four" – plus Giles, of course – that would help to reclaim the Ashes the following summer.
It is not so clear-cut now and Giles has been in earnest conversations this past week with the team's coach, Andy Flower, and the captain, Andrew Strauss. In the event, he will influence the choice of the eventual team but not vote on it. This is part of England's arcane policy, having a selector on tour who does not select, but Giles appears to be comfortable with it.
"We talk all the time," he said. "Andy Flower has communicated with me a lot about what's going on, the stuff you can't see. You weigh up all sorts of things. Is it more positive to go in with five bowlers? You could say it is, you might say, 'Well, it's a long Test series, four matches, it's a game of chess as well'. As for the batters, you need runs on the board, there is no point in bowling sides out if you don't have the runs on the board. A lot depends on conditions, you have to be flexible."
Nobody really knows which way England will turn and it will continue to be like this as they adjust finally to life permanently without Flintoff. The absence of a copper-bottomed all-rounder does that to a side, as South Africa will find out if they have to take the field on Wednesday without Jacques Kallis, who is in a race against time to be fit enough to play after breaking a rib.
However, there is a growing suspicion, no more, that they will play the safe card and field six batsmen and four specialist bowlers. Nobody in the camp has said as much and, indeed, Strauss has stressed that all three main selection options remain valid. They are: playing six batsmen with Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper at seven; or playing five batsmen, with Prior at six and either the fledgling all-rounder Luke Wright or Stuart Broad at seven, the latter shortening the batting but lengthening the bowling because it would allow another specialist seam bowler to play.
The sixth batsman would be Ian Bell and he could consider himself badly done by were he deemed surplus to requirements. In the Ashes-clinching Test against Australia at The Oval in August, Bell was England's top scorer in their first innings, batting nearly four hours for his 72. It showed a grit that many doubted he possessed, "as good an innings as he has played for England," said Giles.
But Bell has been overtaken in the pecking order by his county colleague, Jonathan Trott, second-innings centurion at The Oval on his debut and indubitably flavour of the month. Giles knows them both inside out in his other job as director of cricket at Warwickshire.
"Trotty has risen quickly," Giles said. "A couple of years ago we set up a plan to get him from A to B and he was nowhere near the right place in that period. He has worked incredibly hard, changed a lot of his habits whether they be on or off the field."
But one man will have to pull all these strands together when the talking stops. That is Strauss, who is as tough as teak but does not have machismo emblazoned on his clothing. "The word people use a lot with Strauss is impressive," Giles said, "and I think that is as a bloke and as a cricketer. He has a lot of respect from the people around him, he leads very much from the front, is a good leader of men and stays very level.
"Leadership is important everywhere, but when you are living together 24 hours a day, working extremely hard, you can become tired and tempers can fray at times and it takes strong leadership, which this team have."
Strauss versus Smith, Harry Potter meets Godzilla, promises to be a compelling confrontation.Reuse content