The battle for bragging rights

England and South Africa go head-to-head in the battle for top spot in a mouth-watering three-match Test series.

    The battle for bragging rights
    The world number one ranking is up for grabs with the three-match series billed as a battle between the two best pace attacks in cricket [GALLO/GETTY]

    A potentially fascinating showdown between two of the world's best Test teams begins at The Oval on Thursday, when England defends the No. 1 ranking against a South Africa side who will seize the top spot if they win the three-match series.

    "We're going to have to be completely on top form to stand any chance of winning,'' England pace bowler James Anderson said.

    "South Africa soak up pressure better than anyone else in the world so we might have to be more patient than we have been in recent series and that's going to be our biggest test. We know they're going strong in all conditions with both bat and ball.''

    The hosts have not lost a Test in England since Pakistan beat them at The Oval in 2010, and the last team to beat them in a home series was South Africa in 2008.

    "It's always a tough tour to come and win here,'' South Africa allrounder Jacques Kallis said.

    "You've got to play some good cricket here, they're a good side at home, but we've got some fond memories of the last tour here when they were also a good team.''

    Perfectly balanced

    This should be as good as it gets for the cricket fan - two of the best teams in the world competing in the form of the game that the overwhelming majority of experts still regard as the purest judge of ability.

    The only regret is that the series, squeezed by the demands of the international schedule, will last for only three matches, but the teams look almost perfectly balanced, with South Africa's slight statistical advantage countered by England's experience of home conditions.

    South Africa's form is difficult to gauge from the limited amount of cricket they have played since arriving in England two weeks ago.

    Rain-affected draws with Somerset and Kent amounted to little more than glorified practice sessions, although Kallis did not feel this would be a factor.

    "As far as preparation (is concerned) I don't think anything more could have been done,'' he said.

    "I think the guys are all pretty much where they want to be and just keen for the game to start now.''

    Boucher loss

    South Africa's build-up was also overshadowed by the horrific eye injury suffered by wicketkeeper Mark Boucher at Somerset, forcing him to retire.

    AB de Villiers can keep wicket competently enough, but it's the loss of Boucher's batting that will, arguably, be more keenly felt. Boucher was one of the grittiest lower-order batsmen in the game and his Test average of 30 only partially illustrates just how often he rescued South Africa after a collapse. Yet if South Africa's tail is weaker for Boucher's absence, England will first have to get through the most vaunted top order in world cricket.

    "It's going to be a huge challenge for us,'' Anderson acknowledged.

    "We like testing ourselves against the best in the world and there's four of their guys in the top 10.''

    The quartet Anderson referred to are de Villiers, Kallis, Hashim Amla and captain Graeme Smith, all of whom are in the top 10 of the world rankings.

    Alastair Cook is the only Englishman on that list and with both sides having three of the top 10 bowlers, the rankings suggest South Africa has a slight edge.

    Since usurping India as the world's No. 1 side 12 months ago, England's status looked precarious during a winter that saw a 3-0 loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates and a 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka.

    However, so far this summer the hosts have been in imperious form. They outclassed a limited West Indies side in all three forms of the game and outplayed Australia to win an ODI series 4-0.

    England's strength in depth is such that there is a very real chance that fast bowler Steven Finn, who was outstanding against Australia, could be left on the sidelines.

    Both Finn and Tim Bresnan could play if England select five bowlers, but a reluctance to tinker with the balance of the side means that Essex's Ravi Bopara is set to be given the chance to secure the No. 6 slot, arguably the only area in which England have been found wanting in the last year.



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