For England the hors-d'oeuvre is over. New Zealand provided Michael Vaughan's side with the occasional dose of indigestion during the last six months but overall they were consumed with little fuss. It is now time to get rid of your side plate and move your knife and fork a bit further apart because the main course has just arrived at the table, and it comes in the form of the big, strong, confident, meat-loving South Africans. Graeme Smith's impressive side care little if the beast placed in front of them is firm or fragile, cooked raw or well done. All they want to do is devour it.
England's four-Test series against South Africa which, weather permitting, begins this morning at Lord's will provide every man, woman or child with an interest in the national side with a strong indication of where the side are currently at. Victory would suggest everything is on track and next year's Ashes encounter is one to look forward to. Defeat could place several players in a vulnerable position. For the Ashes they may be spectators.
In the end, back-to-back, home and away series against New Zealand were won comfortably, but there were times when England's cricket was far from convincing. Vaughan's side will play together for a historic sixth consecutive Test today, but need to raise the quality of cricket they play if they are to match the opposition. It is 12 Tests since England last scored 400 in a first innings and it was New Zealand's inability to finish a team off, as much as England's powers of recovery, which allowed Vaughan's side to be triumphant. South Africa are no strangers to winning either; they are unbeaten in their last seven Test series, winning six and drawing in India – which is no mean feat.
Vaughan is fully aware of the importance of the series and the size of the challenge that lies ahead. "For me a South African series is nearly as big as an Ashes," he admitted. "Obviously, we do not have the 'little urn' to play for but it is always a big series for the guys to play in. They are always hard-fought contests, very, very tough, which is what Test cricket is all about – getting out there and testing yourself against tough opposition.
"There can be no doubt that there will be confrontations against South Africa. It's a proper Test series, which is what everyone wants to see. We obviously want to try to play within the spirit of the game but it is why playing South Africa or Australia is very good on the eye for spectators because they see a real contest. It is why the players in my team are excited about this challenge and over the next five weeks we will find out if we have developed as a Test team."
Vaughan insisted: "We got better as the New Zealand series wore on and we will have to continue in that vein against a strong South African team, but I am confident we can produce some good performances in the next few weeks. South Africa have had a wonderful year – they are a settled team with a good blend of experience and youth. Their bowling attack will be a completely different proposition to New Zealand's. It is a lot more pacey, they bowl from different angles and Dale Steyn is ranked the second best bowler in the world. That will be a big threat to the batsmen.
"And in terms of their batting; they have a lot of experience and a lot of Test runs and that will challenge our bowlers. But I am quietly confident that if we can swing the ball, we can put a lot of pressure on them. It is a series I think we can win. It is being played on our home shores and conditions can favour the style of bowlers we have."
In previous years yesterday's weather would have threatened the prospect of play this morning but the drainage powers of the new outfield mean that play should start on time if the rain disappears. Whether England will be as happy with that as South Africa is another matter. The Proteas have played three Tests at Lord's since being readmitted to international cricket in 1992 and they have won each of them by a considerable margin. The victories have not been converted to series triumphs.
However, this Test may give England their best chance of defeating Smith's side. South Africa's preparations have been badly affected by the weather, which has prevented either side from using the grass nets in the build-up to the match. Practice has been restricted to the indoor cricket school at Lord's but conditions there are nothing like those in the middle. England's practice has been limited too but at least they have two months of outdoor cricket to fall back on.
If England are to succeed they will need to repel South Africa's highly-rated pace attack, whose main focus will be their former countryman Kevin Pietersen. Big series and stages should bring out the best in top players and for Pietersen it does not get any bigger than this. England's best batsman exploded on to the international scene during a oneday series against South Africa in 2004-05, scoring three breathtaking hundreds in seven matches. This will be his first Test against South Africa and England will be hoping the occasion brings about a similar response.
Pietersen and Smith, the South African captain, do not get on. Smith has criticised Pietersen for comments he made about South Africa, whilst Pietersen called him "a muppet". The pair now state they have made up and that there are no outstanding issues between them.
Even so, their interaction in the middle will be fascinating to watch.
Teams for the first Test
ENGLAND M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt)
A N Cook (Essex)
A J Strauss (Middlesex)
K P Pietersen (Hampshire)
I R Bell (Warwickshire)
P D Collingwood (Durham)
T R Ambrose
R J Sidebottom (Notts)
S C Broad (Notts)
J M Anderson (Lancashire)
M S Panesar (Northants)
England will make history today when the same side takes the field for a sixth consecutive Test
SOUTH AFRICA (from) G C Smith (capt)
N D McKenzie
H M Amla
J H Kallis
A G Prince
A B de Villiers
M V Boucher (wkt)
P L Harris
D W Steyn
Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) & B F Bowden (NZ)
Match Referee: J J Crowe (NZ)
TELEVISION Live: Every day on Sky Sports 1 (today: 10am-7pm). Highlights: Every day on Five (tonight: 7.15-8pm)Reuse content