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The king is dead, long live the king
Alastair Cook’s four-year reign as England’s Test skipper is over. When Joe Root leads out the boys at Lords on Thursday morning, the 26-year-old will become the 80th man to captain the country, and the youngest to take the top job since Michael Atherton was handed the armband back in 1993.
Root’s elevation was a fait accompli once Cook decided there was nothing left in the tank after the winter tour of India. While England against South Africa at the home of cricket sells itself, the advent of the ‘Root era’ will be as eagerly scrutinised in the Lords’ Pavilion as the Sky studios. The young Yorkshireman’s credentials as an international batsman are, of course, impeccable – he has an average of over 50 runs in 54 Tests – but with just four outings as skipper in first class cricket for the White Rose, he is short of captaincy experience.
The burning question then is whether Root can reinvigorate an England side which has failed to win any of their three most recent Test series; a run which has seen the team slip to fourth in the ICC rankings. The pressures of leadership can have an unpredictable effect on form. England, however, will be nothing if not abrasive under Root, and they will need to be if they are to topple South Africa at Lords.
The Proteas’ last tour of England five years ago ended in a 2-0 series triumph for the visitors. That included a 51-run win at Lords, courtesy of a second innings century from Hashim Amla and a seven wicket haul for Vernon Philander. Both will return to the scene of the crime this week. Their last six visits to Lords have yielded four wins and two draws, and only England supporters of a certain vintage will remember the last time the team despatched the Proteas in St. John’s Wood.
Odds to look out for
England are nonetheless favourites for the first Test of the summer, at 19/20. South Africa are 51/20 to record a fifth win in seven Lords assignments, while the draw is 11/4. The first innings for both sides will, as ever, set the tone for the rest of the match. Root is rated 5/1 to lead by example and top score when England bat. Cook is 11/2 to contribute the bulk of the runs, while the recalled Gary Balance is 10/1 to take his prolific form for Yorkshire into Test cricket.
Unsurprisingly, Amla is the shortest priced of the South African batsman for the first innings, at 11/2. Opener Dean Elgar, who captains the Proteas in the absence of Faf du Plessis, is 13/2 to top score. The uncapped right hander, Heino Kuhn, is 8/1 to mark what would be his Test debut with a big score, while fellow international newbie, Aiden Markram, is 11/1 to lead the way should he win his first cap.
Both bowling line-ups will have a rejigged feel with the home side missing Chris Woakes and Jake Ball, through injury. There is a familiar name at the top of the betting for England: Jimmy Anderson is 11/2 to take the most first innings wickets. The Lancashire seamer turns 35 this month, but with 15 wickets in the County Championship this season, there’s life in the old dog yet. With 467 victims and counting, there’s no more prolific bowler currently playing Test cricket.
South African youngster Kagiso Rabada is 11/2 to finish with the most wickets from the first innings at Lords, while Stuart Broad and Morne Morkel are both 13/2 to do the most damage. Each side could feature debutants in their attacks this Thursday. Middlesex seamer Toby Roland-Jones is 8/1 to make the most significant inroads on his home ground, while 21-year-old Andile Phehlukwayo is 10/1 to emerge as South Africa’s leading bowler.