When looking ahead to an England Test series, the certain element of dread was never far from the mind.
England are not known for their consistency when it comes to red-ball cricket, and that’s now the case for the shorter formats of the game too.
However, this one feels different.
We come into these Tests off the back of an extraordinary series draw against India, with Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow putting on 260-run third wicket stand to beat their opponents by seven wickets to complete England’s highest ever run chase in Test cricket.
We’re also coming into this series having completed a 3-0 series whitewash win over New Zealand earlier in the summer, where the emergence of ‘Bazball’ came into full effect.
England were easily chasing down scores of 277, 299 and 296 that had just a year ago seemed unimaginable targets.
So while of course, the general apprehension still remains (it will take quite some time for that overwhelming dread to completely disappear…) this next Test series against South Africa has an air of much greater excitement than England fans have known for a while.
As we look ahead to the next few days, what are the key talking points to look out for in this series?
James Anderson’s big number
England’s most successful ever bowler recently hit a new milestone when he turned the big four zero.
However, Jimmy Anderson has proved that his increasing years are of little matter when it comes to his passion, pace and most importantly, wicket-taking.
Over the years, his average has significantly improved with his first few years on the block seeing averages of 34.84 in 2003, 40.78 in 2007.
But last year saw the ‘Burnley Express’ enjoy an average of just 21.74, and as he currently sits on an average of 22.16 for 2022, there is little doubt that Anderson’s age is anything but a blessing to his squad.
His captain Ben Stokes has said: “To be playing at 40, is phenomenal. He’s got the label ‘the freak’ to be able to do what he does at that age. He’s an unbelievable ambassador for the game, but also for fast bowlers in the future.”
So with 43 more wickets to go until he reaches 700 Test wickets, Jimmy will be sure to rattle through the South African batting line-up as quickly and as efficiently as we have come so used to seeing from the remarkable paceman.
Still no Harry Brook
What more does this youngster have to do to break into the top squad?
Whether his first-class average of 107.49 was just not high enough for the selectors or if indeed his recent exhibition of 140 for England Lions against South Africa last week was too poor a score, we may never know.
Brook is a middle-order batter, and has thrived in his position this year and it would be understandable that with the likes of Stokes, Root and Bairstow in those middle-order positions you would not wish to mess that up.
However, recently the Yorkshireman declared himself ready to open for England if he was asked and with the way things are going in the squad just now, why not try it?
Zak Crawley is yet to make 50 in eight Tests this summer and has only twice reached the 40s.
He is not someone who instils huge amounts of confidence for England fans when he takes his guard at the crease so maybe the time has come to shift the order once more.
Speaking to Sportsmail, Brook said: “I feel like I’d do a job batting anywhere to be honest, and if I got an opportunity to play Test cricket opening the batting, obviously I’m going to take it.”
So if the inevitable happens with the towering Crawley again, England’s second Test might be the right time to see the 23-year-old up at the top.
South Africa are too busy talking
The term ‘Bazball’ has been spreading like wildfire since June with every opposition apparently remaining ‘unfazed’ by its existence.
South Africa’s captain, Dena Elgar is no exception and has reportedly placed a ban on the word within his squad, yet couldn’t help biting back when the opportunity arose for himself to use it.
When asked in the pre-Test press conferences, Elgar said: “I am really not going to entertain that (Bazball) anymore. We have chatted about it long and hard. I just want to crack on with the cricket.
“I think the game deserves that respect and mud-slinging is now a thing of the past for me. We are not going to go back and forth any more around that.”
Well, as Stokes has rightly pointed out, South Africa may wish to talk even less about it if possible and concentrate on what’s at stake.
The Proteas currently sit on top of the World Test Championships for 2021-23 and must fight hard if they are to keep hold of that spot.
Discussing England’s approach, Stokes said: “(England will) concentrate on what we do. We’ve got a style of play, they’ve got a style of play. At the end of the day, it’s bat against ball and whoever plays best over a Test match is most likely to win.
“I’m happy for Dean and the South African team to keep saying they’re not interested, but also keep talking about it.”
England v South Africa begins today, Wednesday 17 August 2022 at 11am BST at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Sky Sports will have all the coverage from the Test match over the next few days.