Alastair Cook goes into the Boxing Day Test against South Africa wary of the wounded animal that is the world’s No1 side; England, he claims, remain underdogs for the series and will relish the licence that gives them to throw a few punches.
A 3-0 defeat in India at the start of this month has certainly prompted plenty of soul-searching in South Africa, with questions being asked as to whether Hashim Amla’s team are in transition following two high-profile retirements or in a more serious decline.
Top of the Test ladder they may be, but they no longer boast the all-round dominance of Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith’s leadership from the top of the order or Mark Boucher behind the stumps, and the talk among the home support is that there has never been a better time to play the Proteas on a ground where they have lost four of the past five Test matches.
Cook, celebrating his 31st birthday on Christmas Day and seemingly relaxed before the four-Test series whirs into life at Kingsmead, is mindful that talk remains cheap. South Africa have lost just one series at home in the past seven years, when Australia’s Mitchell Johnson continued his rein of terror from the 2013-14 Ashes with 22 wickets in a 2-1 win.
“You can’t replace those players in a short space of time; they were great cricketers,” Cook said. “It’s a different side to the two times I’ve played them previously but they’re still ranked No1 in the world and they’re tough to beat at home. They know their conditions better than anyone.
“We know the challenge ahead of ourselves and, as boring as it sounds, we always try and focus on what we can control: our side, our preparation and making sure we get ourselves ready for the battle. We’ll let South Africa worry about anything they want to worry about.
“Whether it’s a good or bad time to play them, I always think to beware a wounded animal. But it’s just talk isn’t it? The guys are ready to test themselves against the best in their back yard; this side like being the underdogs and like throwing a few punches.”
Preparation for the series had certainly appeared to be peaking well at the start of the week with an innings victory over a South Africa A side that appeared strong on paper, if a little less so on grass. That was until Jimmy Anderson’s calf strain ruled him out of the first Test and left Cook without his record Test wicket-taker.
The England captain confirmed Warwickshire all-rounder Chris Woakes would come into to the side for his first international cricket in whites since August 2014, with Cook tipping the 26-year-old, who boasts 357 first-class wickets at 25 runs apiece, to take his chance while also lengthening the batting order.
“Chris is ready to go now, he’s learned his trade and it’s about him delivering now on the big stage for England, which he can do. He’s desperate to be given opportunities and it’s been quite hard for him to get in the side given how long Jimmy and [Stuart] Broad have fit and around. It’s a great opportunity and he is a very good cricketer who gives us great depth to our batting.”
Making his Test debut alongside Cook will be Alex Hales, the eighth batsman to partner the England captain since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012 but perhaps the first to fit the attacking, aggressive approach desired by the head coach, Trevor Bayliss.
Hales, who averaged 51 for Nottinghamshire last season and made a career-best 236 against the eventual champions Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, has the opportunity to become the first batsman to score hundreds in all three formats of the game for England after his maiden 50-over century against Pakistan last month and an unbeaten 116 against Sri Lanka in the 2014 World Twenty20.
The warm-up matches saw the best and worst of a talented right-hander who has being working hard on leaving the ball since the start of the tour, only to do so twice in three of his innings and hear the death rattle of the stumps behind. His 56 against South Africa A, which included nine fours, gave a flavour of his talents, with Cook urging him to stick with what comes naturally.
“It’s absolutely vital he plays the way he plays for Notts. One of the biggest mistakes you can do as an international player is to think you have to play a different way. The reason he got selected was for the way he plays and the big hundreds when he gets in. Certainly at the start of last year, that made everyone sit up and take notice of him.
“You can’t change the way he plays, he’s just got to be true to himself and that will be good enough. Always, at the top of the order against the new ball and world-class attacks, you’re going to have low scores. So it’s about how you handle that and, when you’re in, make sure you cash in and go big to compensate.”
Asked if Hales would be feeling the pressure on debut, Cook replied: “Not really. As a player when you’re picked to make your debut for England it’s a great five days. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work not just by yourself but all the commitment the family have made, the coaches, your friends … it’s a big occasion for a huge number of people.
“I hope he’s looking forward to the challenge, showing people what he can do rather than just being another opener off the rank. He’s got an opportunity to really make a name for himself.”
Cook himself goes into the first Test in peak form. While his 30th birthday was spent brooding over his removal as England’s one-day captain, amid a two-year spell without an international century, the left-hander needs 125 in Durban to surpass Michael Vaughan’s English record of 1,481 runs in a calendar year.
“In hindsight, losing the one-day captaincy gave me two months to get away from the game. Sometimes you do need to step out of the bubble and reassess. I got to look at my Test match game as a whole and the benefit of that is that I’ve scored a few runs this year. Its been good from a personal point of view. It wasn’t a particularly fun Christmas last year bit hopefully this year it will be slightly different.”
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