• England face South Africa in first of four Tests in Durban on Boxing Day 
  • Proteas side now lacking giants like Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith
  • Home side rely heavily on two batsmen in Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers
  • I had no concerns about England’s bowling until I heard that Anderson is out

Nasser Hussain for the Daily Mail

It is vital that England reverse their trend of making poor starts to overseas series if they are to win in South Africa.

They go into Boxing Day’s first Test with the home side not looking as strong as in the past and with home captain Hashim Amla under pressure, so England have to hit the ground running. South Africa look there for the taking.

The fact the second Test in Cape Town follows just two days after the first in Durban is due to end makes that good start even more important for an England side whose away record makes them look equally vulnerable. 

England Alastair Cook gets through some batting practice during a nets session in Durban on Wednesday 

England Alastair Cook gets through some batting practice during a nets session in Durban on Wednesday 

The key for England is their batting because they cannot just keep on relying on Cook (pictured) and Joe Root 

The key for England is their batting because they cannot just keep on relying on Cook (pictured) and Joe Root 

This is a battle between the No 1 team in the world and the one ranked fifth, so South Africa will start favourites but there are a lot of similarities between the sides.

Day one on Saturday is perhaps even bigger for South Africa than England.

If they can maintain their outstanding home form then they can say their thrashing in India was just a blip, but if they look shaky then home doubts will rapidly creep in. 

It would not take much for questions to be asked of a Proteas side now lacking giants like Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith. There will be those who think their decline is terminal if England can strike early in this series. 

South Africa rely heavily on two batsmen in Amla and AB de Villiers, even though the captain is short of runs, just as England have been relying on Alastair Cook and Joe Root.

With South Africa captain Hashim Amla under pressure, England have to hit the ground running

With South Africa captain Hashim Amla under pressure, England have to hit the ground running

As England rely on Cook and Root, South Africa count on AB de Villiers (above) and Amla to perform

As England rely on Cook and Root, South Africa count on AB de Villiers (above) and Amla to perform

After difficult tours in subcontinental conditions, both teams will feel much more comfortable with pitches that suit the seamers more than the spinners. England, in particular, are happier to revert to the tried and trusted formula of four seamers with Moeen Ali as their spin option. 

I had no concerns about England’s bowling until I heard the news that Jimmy Anderson is out. They will rightly say they won at Trent Bridge last summer without him, when Stuart Broad stepped up so spectacularly, but you badly want your No 1 bowler to play in games like this.

I would have included Steven Finn in the attack, even if Anderson had been able to play, as long as England are happy that he is match fit.  

It’s certainly a gamble worth taking by England in a five-man attack because, with the Kookaburra ball in South African conditions, it can get very flat in the middle overs and they will need the extra firepower Finn provides.

Stuart Broad gets into the Christmas spirit before he takes on the task of leading the England attack

Stuart Broad gets into the Christmas spirit before he takes on the task of leading the England attack

Moeen Ali is England's primary spin option for pitches that will be more suitable for both side's seamers

Moeen Ali is England’s primary spin option for pitches that will be more suitable for both side’s seamers

As long as he is fit, Steven Finn should be included in the England line-up, as he has been for the first Test

As long as he is fit, Steven Finn should be included in the England line-up, as he has been for the first Test

But the key for England is their batting because they cannot keep relying upon Cook and Root. Most of the other batsmen have been around for a while and they have to stop this tendency towards feast or famine.

Ben Stokes is a classic example. On his day, he looks absolutely fantastic but then he will go through a spell when he can’t score a run and he must learn to soak up the pressure and fight it out on those bad days. 

There have been too many times when England do not soak up that pressure and the number of collapses they have had is ridiculous, with too many players not accepting their share of responsibility. 

The biggest thing England need to take from this series is to finally end their search for a regular opening partner for Cook. 

I would give Alex Hales all four Tests, however he does in the first two, because his first taste of Test cricket will be far from easy against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Hales must be given time. 

All-rounder Ben Stokes is a classic example of England's feast or famine form trend with the bat

All-rounder Ben Stokes is a classic example of England’s feast or famine form trend with the bat

Alex Hales (right with James Taylor) should be given a chance at opener in all four Tests in South Africa 

Alex Hales (right with James Taylor) should be given a chance at opener in all four Tests in South Africa 

If England can bat well they really will put pressure on South Africa, not least De Villiers, who will be forced to spend more time in the field as wicketkeeper than he will want. De Villiers is an exceptional player, but I know he does not like combining the two roles.

I fancy England to win this series if they start well — and their preparation seems to have been decent in Potchefstroom and Pietermaritzburg — but if they get off to their traditional slow start they could be in trouble. 

They cannot just rely on their big names. There are some exciting players in this England side who are pretty well established. Now they have to stand up and be counted.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts,
or debate this issue live on our message boards.

Who is this week’s top commenter?
Find out now