The Boxing Day test is one of those famous cricketing traditions that never seems to lessen in appeal, and this year’s clash between England and South Africa – the first of a four test series – is no less appetising.
Both sides were found wanting by tough assignments in the sub continent recently, but they will be on much more familiar territory here in the seam-friendly conditions of Durban.
For England this could be the most dramatically-changed starting eleven in some time. Ian Bell has gone – a batting average of 20 in 2015 is simply not good enough from one of the classiest batsmen around – although you would wager that a player who scored 313 runs in his last tour of South Africa will be sorely missed.
He will be replaced by one of Nick Compton or Gary Ballance; both admirable performers but it’s not easy returning to the toughest form of cricket after a period of absence. With debutant Alex Hales opening the innings, there is a certain fragility to England’s top order.
The news that Jimmy Anderson looks set to miss the first test with a calf injury will have hardly helped matters, although the silver lining is that Steve Finn is back amongst the wickets and looks fighting fit. The Three Lions will miss the leader of their attack, however.
And so it’s advantage South Africa, you might think. But the Proteas aren’t without their problems either. Former heroes Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, who battered England’s bowlers during their last tour, are both departed and have been replaced at the top of the order by Stiaan Van Zyl, Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis, whose averages in India of 11.20, 19.57 and 8.57 respectively are the stuff of nightmare.
The real strength of South African cricket is in their bowling, although the news that Vernon Philander will miss the first two tests through injury will not have been met with glee. The return of Dale Steyn is much needed then.
So here are two sides with inexperienced top orders and injuries to key bowlers. It is tough to pick them apart then – for the first test and the series as a whole – and so we must look elsewhere for some betting value.
Top Betting Tips
As far as England’s top batsman is concerned, you can back both Alistair Cook (10/3) and Joe Root (11/4) and make profit; it would be a surprise to see the newish triumvirate of Hales, Compton or Taylor contesting that. As far as the South African batting ‘match ups’ are concerned, we’ll take Hashim Amla to outscore Dean Elgar at 4/6 every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.
Given that he took four wickets in a searing spell against South Africa A last week, there is a lot to press the claims of Steve Finn as England’s best bowler in this first test and particularly so given his generous 11/4 price. This Durban track will give him the bounce and carry his bowling style so craves.
The last time England played South Africa in a test in Durban more than 1000 runs were scored in three innings, with eight half centuries extended to two tons, a 91 and two 75s. And so, at 4/7, the ‘Hundred in First Innings’ market looks ripe for the picking.
And finally, this is a generously-priced bet that has come up trumps for us a couple of times in the past. Ben Stokes, a destructive player with both bat and ball, offers two opportunities to put in a match-winning performance. At 14/1 to be named Man of the Match, the ginger all-rounder is well worth a small stakes punt.