Before landing in South Africa the sages in the England setup had an abundance of options, enough to keep them agonising for hours before Thursday’s first Test. A squad of 17 felt like an extravagance. There might be two spare batsmen and three spare pacemen once the serious cricket began. Now the squad has expanded to 19 with the arrival of the startled Somerset pair of Dom Bess and Craig Overton, and selection is more likely to be in the hands of the medics than the coaches as a flu epidemic threatens the best-laid plans.
After ending up in Hamilton with a novice keeper in the second Test against New Zealand, England are taking every possible precaution before the Boxing Day Test at Centurion. It might be necessary, assuming everyone returns to fitness, to order up some extra bibs for the England players sitting on the sidelines.
The most striking addition has been Bess, a clear indication that faith in Matt Parkinson, the Lancashire leg-spinner, is limited and that his selection was dubious. Gone are the days when a youngster can pick up valuable experience on an England tour: there are no matches for him to play in. Even so, there remains a curious, romantic attachment among English selectors, even those hardened pragmatists, to anyone who flicks the ball out of the back of the hand.
So there may be some unfamiliar names lining up in Gauteng. South Africa are leaving nothing to chance either. They had a squad of 17 for the first two Tests and then their plans were disrupted by a hip injury to Temba Bavuma. They included six players yet to play in a Test, though Dwaine Pretorius and Dane Paterson have been around for a while.
There will, however, be no difficulty for English visitors in recognising South Africa’s backroom staff. It might be the most star-studded ever. Amid the crisis surrounding the running of South African cricket the players of a decade ago have been given new roles. Graeme Smith has agreed to be their cricket director for the next three months. He has enlisted Mark Boucher as the coach, Jacques Kallis has a consultancy role as a batting coach and Charl Langeveldt is working with the bowlers. Between them they have 436 Test caps, of which Langeveldt contributes six.
It is understandable South Africa should fall back on such reassuring figures at this time and it will be intriguing to see how much impact these giants of the past can have, even though they can no longer contribute any runs or wickets themselves. It is impressive that the big names are prepared to take up the burden; in England they usually head straight for the broadcasting boxes instead.
There is no guarantee that a world-class cricketer will necessarily become a great coach. Different skills are required. In fact, brilliance on the field is far from essential. Recent England coaches – with the exception of Andy Flower – have had modest international records or none at all. David Lloyd played nine Tests, Duncan Fletcher had no such opportunities with Zimbabwe and neither the twice-appointed Peter Moores nor Trevor Bayliss played at international level.
South Africa’s concerns are not so dissimilar to England’s and there is an element of anxiously putting a finger in the dyke after five consecutive defeats against Sri Lanka and India. This is reflected in the age of the potential debutants. Five of them are over 30, while the sixth, Beuran Hendricks, is 29. There are concerns about the upper order. Dean Elgar provides the glue in a manner that England hope his county colleague Rory Burns can match more regularly. Elgar’s likeliest partner, Aiden Markram, has been badly hampered by a wrist injury sustained when smashing it against a wall in the pavilion in Pune against India, after declining to review an lbw that the TV cameras would have shown to be not out, a neat vignette of South Africa’s recent frustrations.
As with England there are several pace bowling options even though Lungi Ngidi is unfit but it is not clear which is the best one on a track that traditionally offers some encouragement to pace bowlers.
The likeliest combination would have Kasigo Rabada supported by Vernon Philander and Anrich Nortje, with Keshav Maharaj providing the spin. However, it is just possible that both sides will consider shunning their spinner, especially so from the England standpoint if Jack Leach fails to recover properly from the flu.
As ever there is pressure on the captains, who both bear the burden of being the key run-scorer in their team. Faf du Plessis is now 35 and being captain of a losing South Africa side can be debilitating. Expectations are always high. Joe Root is bolstered by a Test double century in his last outing in Hamilton but that does not entirely settle the debate about his output as captain. He knows that run-scoring will be trickier here.
In the meantime the coaches of both sides will plot and fret on the balcony. As cricketers England’s coaching setup, now headed up by Chris Silverwood (six Test matches), could hardly be expected to match that of the South Africans. But this does not matter a jot now. The players rather than the coaches will decide the outcome of this series and England just hope they have 17 – make that 19 – to choose from on Boxing Day morning.