England claimed a thrilling series-levelling victory in Cape Town last week but head to Port Elizabeth on Thursday without James Anderson - read Richard Mann's third Test preview here.
If ever five-day Test cricket needed a boost, it was now, in the midst of calls for cricket's ultimate challenge to be reduced to four days, and England's thrilling victory in Cape Town served as another powerful and beautiful reminder of just what we would be missing should the ICC decide to tinker with the purest form of the game.
While I won't use these words to debate that particular subject, the prospect of another flat and slow pitch in Port Elizabeth suggests the bowlers might have to work hard for their wickets again once the new ball has been negotiated.
The fact James Anderson was able to claim match figures of 37-15-63-7 in Cape Town was more a reflection of his wonderful skills and metronomic accuracy rather than any assistance he received from the Kookaburra ball or a disappointingly docile Newlands surface.
The rib injury Anderson picked up at the end of that match means his series is now over and while his absence is a big blow to the tourists, this will the seventh time in England's last 11 Test matches since the beginning of last summer that Joe Root will have to led his side out without his premier strike bowler in tow.
England are slowly getting used to life without Anderson and are still marginal favourites to prevail in the third Test, Sri Lanka's eight-wicket victory and comfortable second-innings run chase at the same venue a year ago sure to give the tourists confidence and also offer a pointer to the fact that there should be runs in this surface if the batsmen are able to occupy the crease in the same way Dom Sibley and Pieter Malan did in Cape Town.
With that in mind, I'm not too surprised to see nibbles of money for the draw at the time of writing but South Africa haven't drawn a Test match since March 2017, when playing out a stalemate with New Zealand in Hamilton, and their inexperienced batting line-up but strong bowling attack should ensure they remain something of an all-or-nothing outfit.
With Jofra Archer expected to return for England, they will hope they have enough pace in their armoury to negate the expected sluggish surface and as was the case last week, getting first-innings runs on the board could be the key to dictating terms once again.
Root's decision not to bat first at the toss in the first Test, as he choose to do last week, might still come back to haunt him when the series is done and dusted and his South African counterpart, Faf du Plessis, will be hopeful he can enjoy better luck when he tosses the coin on Thursday morning.
As such, I'm not prepared to advise a bet on the match result at this stage but England are a different side when batting first and able to get ahead of the game, and striking a bet in-running, even if they post an apparently below-par score in their first innings, will be well worth considering if things again go Root's way at the toss.
Many of the Test series played in South Africa over the last decade have been noteworthy for the success middle order batsmen have enjoyed comparative to the top order, as the likes of Vernon Philander and Kasigo Rabada have made the Kookaburra talk on some sporting wickets before batting has become easier as the ball and its insignificant seam has lost its bite once getting older.
This series hasn't quite followed that template but batting certainly looked comfortable for Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope when they made runs from number five and six last week and Rassie van der Dussen's two lengthy vigils from number five came in similar circumstances.
As such, Pope appeals for top England first innings runscorer at 6/1, though he was very nearly denied victory in the same market in Cape Town as he ran out of partners, and I'm not sure he's worth the risk, particularly if England's improving top order manage to set him a stiff score to pass.
In the same market for South Africa, I'm not yet convinced by van der Dussen who rode his luck on a number of occasions last week while my pre-series confidence in Zubayr Hamza has ebbed away somewhat following a string of identical dismissals.
Hamza's penchant for playing away from his body against the moving ball and defending with the bat face coming down towards cover has brought his outside edge into play throughout the series and England's slip cordon will continue be in the game if the likes of Stuart Broad and Archer can target a fourth stump line.
He remains a fine prospect but has improvements to make on his game in order to make a success of his international career.
Malan looked a fine player when debuting in Cape Town, a rock-solid technique and organised game plan helping him compile a resolute second-innings 84, and the absence of Anderson should make his task easier this week.
Nevertheless, he will face a different test in Port Elizabeth when confronted by Archer's extra pace and I'm still convinced the middle order might be the best place to bat.
Quinton de Kock has been in sparkling form from number six in the series so far - currently leading South Africa's run charts with 199 runs at an average of 49.75 - with his first-innings 95 in Centurion proving match defining.
De Kock averaged 47.53 throughout 2019 and looks sure to continue to that trend in the new year while his numbers against England - 527 runs at 40.53 - and a fluent 86 on this ground against Sri Lanka last winter further build the case for taking the 5/1 for him to claim top South Africa first innings batsman honours.
He gets the confident vote but I can't resist a small saver on Philander at 66/1, with his price a long way from reflecting his capabilities with the bat.
Philander has always been a handy lower-order batsman, someone whose patient approach and sound technique has allowed him to build a respectable Test average of 24.64.
As a result, Philander found himself promoted to number seven in the South Africa batting order for the second Test and scores and 35, 46, 17* and two in the series to date confirm he is more than capable of being in the mix in this market should England claim early casualties with the new ball. 66/1 is far too big.
Anrich Nortje has been the real surprise package for the hosts so far and this tall, hit-the-deck style fast bowler will be keen to make an impact in front of his own fans but the prospect of a slow pitch might not play to his strengths while Rabada looms a big danger as he steadily works his way back to peak form.
He is of obvious interest in the top South Africa first innings bowler market at 10/3, but with Nortje and Philander in there pitching, and Keshav Maharaj sure to come good before long, I'm happy to sit this one out.
Posted at 0950 GMT on 13/01/20.
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