• England take on South Africa in the first of four Tests from Boxing Day
  • Injured spearhead James Anderson has been replaced by Chris Woakes
  • England captain Alastair Cook said Anderson’s injury is a ‘huge loss’
  • Steven Finn’s fitness provides a boost to England who face a huge task
  • Alex Hales is primed to make Test debut opening alongside captain Cook 
  • Cook celebrated his 31st birthday on Christmas Day in Durban 

Paul Newman for MailOnline

It was all going so well. England were looking so good in a proper warm-up match in Pietermaritzburg that comparisons were even being made with the super smooth build up to their winning Ashes winter under Andrew Strauss. Then a spanner was quickly thrown into the works.

Just when it felt that England just might be able to knock the world’s best team, looking unusually vulnerable after heavy defeat in India, off their lofty perch, injury struck Jimmy Anderson and reality came calling again.

It is the absence of the leader of England’s attack with a calf injury at Kingsmead on Boxing Day that reinforces South Africa’s status as favourites in a four-Test series they cannot afford to lose if they are to retain their world No 1 status.

Chris Woakes, confirmed at Christmas Day nets as Anderson’s replacement, is a much-improved bowler and better than many give him credit for but he is stepping into very big shoes and will be under immense pressure.

Chris Woakes is primed to step into the huge shoes of James Anderson on Boxing Day against South Africa

Chris Woakes is primed to step into the huge shoes of James Anderson on Boxing Day against South Africa

Woakes is much-improved and better than many give him credit for, so have a chance to prove himself 

Woakes is much-improved and better than many give him credit for, so have a chance to prove himself 

Leader of England's attack James Anderson will miss at least the first Test in Durban with a calf injury

Leader of England’s attack James Anderson will miss at least the first Test in Durban with a calf injury

Woakes bowls at Sahara Stadium in Kingsmead on Christmas Day in Durban
The bowler gets another chance in the England line-up on December 26

Woakes works on his line and length at Sahara Stadium in Kingsmead on Christmas Day in Durban

‘Of course it’s a huge loss, it’s all the cliches in the world,’ said England captain Alastair Cook. ‘But we can’t do anything about it. It gives Chris a great opportunity and it enables Stuart (Broad) to step up as leader of the attack which I think he thrives on. Of course we would want Jimmy in our team but he’s not and we will cope with that.’

At least Steven Finn has returned ahead of schedule and provides a welcome boost to an England team without a win in their last four Tests and looking to end an up and down year in the ultimate form of the game on a high note.

If England are going to return to the top spot in the world rankings that South Africa snatched from them in 2012 they must improve on a record that may have seen them win the Ashes but also lose six Tests in 2015.

SOUTH AFRICA V ENGLAND: FIRST TEST, KINGSMEAD, DURBAN, DEC 26

South Africa: H Amla (c), AB De Villiers (wkt), K Abbott, T Bavuma, JP Duminy, F Du Plessis, D Elgar, M Morkel, D Piedt, Rabada, R Rossouw, D Steyn, S Van Zyl (two to be omitted)

England: A Cook (c), A Hales, N Compton, J Root, J Taylor, B Stokes, J Bairstow (wkt), M Ali, C Woakes, S Broad, S Finn

Umpires: A Dar (Pak), R Tucker (Aus)

Third umpire: B Oxenford (Aus)

Match referee: R Madugalle (Sri)

Add the fact that England have won only one of their last 15 Tests overseas and have not won the opening match of a major series away since they defeated South Africa 11 years ago and the size of their task becomes apparent.

England may have been better in the United Arab Emirates than a 2-0 defeat by Pakistan suggests but they need victory here, or at the very least a drawn series, to confirm they are still going in the right direction in Test cricket.

That might well still be more achievable than South Africa’s impressive home record suggests, especially if Anderson confirms the positive diagnosis put on his ‘minor’ injury and is fit to play in the second Test in Cape Town.

South Africa simply do not look anything like the side they were without Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, even if they do include the extraordinary talent of AB de Villiers, while there remains something of a cloud over their own thoroughbred in Dale Steyn, who returns from injury here.

Cooks says losing Anderson is 'a huge loss, it’s all the cliches in the world' but that his attack will step up

Cooks says losing Anderson is ‘a huge loss, it’s all the cliches in the world’ but that his attack will step up

Chris Jordan (left) and Cook train with large tyres at Kingsmead on Friday ahead of the first Test match

Chris Jordan (left) and Cook train with large tyres at Kingsmead on Friday ahead of the first Test match

Cook, celebrating his birthday on Christmas Day, fine tunes in the nets with coach Trevor Bayliss (left)

Cook, celebrating his birthday on Christmas Day, fine tunes in the nets with coach Trevor Bayliss (left)

Not that Cook, celebrating his 31st birthday with a Christmas practice session, is reading too much into the feeling that a South African side under a struggling captain in Hashim Amla are there for the taking.

‘Always beware a wounded animal, all that stuff, it’s just talk isn’t it?’ said Cook. ‘They’re a good side whether or not this is a good time to play them. Our guys are ready to test themselves against the best in their own backyard.

‘There’s a reason why South Africa are the No 1 side in the world and that’s because of their results at home over a long period of time. But we like being underdogs and we like throwing a few punches.’

No-one needs to throw metaphorical punches more than Alex Hales, who faces a baptism of fire on his long-awaited Test debut, especially if England bat first today in what is expected to be gloomy Durban conditions.

Hales has looked tentative in the warm-ups, despite a half-century in Pietermaritzburg, and has twice been bowled leaving the ball. Clearly he is trying to work out a method for Test cricket but Cook was adamant that he needs to remember what got him here in the first place.

‘It’s absolutely vital he plays the way he does for Notts,’ said Cook, who will be walking out with his eighth opening partner since the retirement of Strauss three years ago. ‘One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an international player is to think you have to play a different way. He’s just got to be true to himself and that will be enough.’

Returning paceman Steven Finn (right) speaks with England's bowling coach Ottis Gibson on Friday

Returning paceman Steven Finn (right) speaks with England’s bowling coach Ottis Gibson on Friday

Finn's early return from injury is a welcome boost to an England team without a win in their last four Tests

Finn’s early return from injury is a welcome boost to an England team without a win in their last four Tests

The fortunes of Hales and Nick Compton, returning to the England side in his home city at No 3, are integral to England because they cannot keep on relying on Cook and Joe Root for their runs.

It says everything about England’s propensity for collapse in recent times that Cook, who has scored more runs in 2015 than any England captain has managed in a calendar year, and Root have between them hit 52 per cent of the runs managed by England’s top six this year. It is time for others to step up.

Kingsmead looked more like Headingley on a wet Christmas Day and even though Graeme Swann took nine wickets here in a thumping victory in 2009 seam and swing look likely to be the key factors in this Test.

As in Leeds it is wise to look up rather than down in Durban when assessing conditions and England look certain to bowl if they win the toss and try to capitalise on home nerves from the word go.

If England can make a good start, even without Anderson, they really could be in business but if Steyn and Morne Morkel get among them and Hales and Compton struggle then this could be another tough series. A huge first day awaits.

All-rounder Ben Stokes prepares for the opening Test of the four-Test series against the world No 1 side 

All-rounder Ben Stokes prepares for the opening Test of the four-Test series against the world No 1 side 

Moeen Ali warms up with the customary game of football before taking on the role of England's sole specialist spinner
Woakes limbers up with a medicine ball

Moeen Ali (left) warms up with the customary game of football while Woakes limbers up with a medicine ball

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