South Africa and England meet at Kingsmead from Saturday in the first of four Test matches between two evenly-matched teams that are both seeking a return to winning ways.
South Africa were trounced 3-0 by India recently in their biggest setback since becoming the top-ranked Test team in 2012, while England were beaten 2-0 by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in their most recent series in the longest format. Both teams will relish a return to more familiar conditions after struggling on slow, spin-friendly pitches during their defeats.
The absence of leading bowler James Anderson because of a calf strain is a major blow to England at a ground where swing bowlers often prosper, while Dale Steyn’s return from injury is a boost for South Africa.
But England have reason for confidence after showing outstanding form in two warm-up games, while South Africa’s batsmen, most of whom failed in India, were unable to rediscover their best form while playing in four-day domestic matches, with only Temba Bavuma making a half-century.
AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis opted to rest ahead of the Tests.
“We want to start well. After our performance in India which didn’t go too well that will be important,” said South Africa captain Hashim Amla.
“No matter whom we come across on the day it’s important for us to start well. For us it’s not about who is leading the attack for England, it doesn’t make a difference to us.
“We are faced with our own challenges and it’s something that everybody in the team is looking forward to.”
England will be encouraged by their record at Kingsmead, where South Africa have their poorest record at a home venue, with nine wins and six defeats in 21 matches since returning to Test cricket in 1992. England have not been beaten at the ground during this period, drawing three Tests and winning the 2009/10 encounter by an innings.
Both teams rely primarily on their fast bowlers and both have question marks against their opening batting combinations.
While England captain Alastair Cook has been a heavy run-scorer in recent times, he has had a succession of opening partners who have been tried and found wanting. Alex Hales, who will win his first cap on Saturday, is the latest to try to win a long-term place.
Dean Elgar has had reasonable success at the top of the order for South Africa but remains relatively inexperienced, while Stiaan van Zyl was converted into an opening batsman and could manage only 56 runs in five innings in India, falling to off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin on each occasion.
The ability of the openers to see off the strong new ball attacks of both teams could be a big factor.
Both teams have opted to lengthen their batting orders by handing the wicketkeeping gloves to men who first won selection as specialist batsmen. De Villiers, South Africa’s best batsman and the only man to reach 50 against India, will keep wicket for the hosts, while Jonny Bairstow will fill the role for England.
Neither team has an established specialist spin bowler but off-spinner Moeen Ali has done well for England in addition to being a highly capable batsman at number eight.
South Africa have on occasions opted for an all-seam attack at Kingsmead but Amla said he was reluctant to go in without a spinner, which is likely to mean that steady off-spinner Dane Piedt will win his third cap.