Test of nerve as South Africa aim to go top

England's Andrew Strauss
England's Andrew Strauss

England embark upon their toughest test on home soil for seven years today when they start their highly anticipated Test series against South Africa.

Not since the Australian side, including the likes of Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, were conquered in 2005 can I remember a better side coming to these shores.

South Africa captain Graeme Smith reads out a statement announcing the retirement of wicketkeeper Mark Boucher during the tour match at The County Ground, Taunton. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday July 10, 2012. See PA story CRICKET Somerset. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire

South Africa captain Graeme Smith reads out a statement announcing the retirement of wicketkeeper Mark Boucher during the tour match at The County Ground, Taunton. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday July 10, 2012. See PA story CRICKET Somerset. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire

South Africa came in 2008 and won 2-1, but both sides have improved an immense amount since then.

England have a superb unit, marshalled by Andrew Strauss and coached by Andy Flower, while the South Africans have unearthed the missing pieces of their jigsaw in pace bowler Vernon Philander and spinner Imran Tahir.

There are intriguing individual battles throughout the game and they will be key to the outcome of the three Test series.

The three key battles that spring to mind are those between the skippers, Andrew Strauss and Graeme Smith, the two big egos and personalities, Kevin Pietersen and Jacques Kallis, and the two best pace bowlers in the world, James Anderson and Dale Steyn.

Smith’s statistics read better than Strauss’ across the board.

His average of 49.64 is better than Strauss’ 41.74, and he has scored 8,042 runs compared to Strauss’ 6,930, having played only two games more.

Still, Strauss is a quality batsman and skipper and looks like he’s returning to his best form following a poor spell by his standards.

Kallis could be the best all-rounder in the history of the game. He’s definitely the best in the world at present.

His average of 56.78 is ridiculous, and the 12,379 runs he’s scored from 152 Tests just show how good he is.

Pietersen is our big name player. His average is 49.33 and he will play a big role.

Steyn has played 16 fewer Tests than Anderson, taken five more wickets and has a better average. Still, that’s a tough one to call. On his day Anderson is unplayable, and he should be fully fit having been rested recently too.

I’m stunned that the Test series is only encompassing three matches, yet they’re playing five ODIs and three t20s.

Are we seeing the slow death of Test cricket?