Kevin Pietersen is in the news again. His double-hundred for Surrey against Lancashire was KP at his brutal best but his best knock for his new(ish) county has coincided with talk of a return to limited-overs international cricket, less than two months since he decided to quit and just focus on Test cricket and playing T20 all over the world for various franchises. It's a remarkable 'volte-face' if rumours of a willingness to return are to be believed.
Kevin knows what he needs to do if he wants to be involved in the T20 World Cup. He needs to come out of retirement and make himself available to play international cricket in both ODIs and T20s. There's no doubt England are a better side with him in the team but the ball is in his court now. Either way, I'm sure his priority at the moment is to have a really good Test series against South Africa so let's talk about that.
If this were a couple of weeks ago I'd be saying these sides were very hard to split. But two very significant things have happened since then. Firstly, Mark Boucher has suffered a freak injury during the week which has meant he's retired from international cricket with immediate effect. People talk about Matt Prior being the engine room in the England side but Boucher had a similar role within the Proteas' team. His was arguably an even more important one because he'd been around for so long and had seen it all before. His keeping was exceptional and his energy levels immense. Not to mention his job behind the stumps in terms of working out how to get batsmen out and constant communicating with the bowlers. Ok, his batting wasn't quite what it was over the last few Series compared to a few years back but even recently you knew you had to work hard for his wicket. He's a massive loss to the team.
The other thing that's happened is that South Africa have had very little chance to play on this Tour because of bad weather. Readers of this column will be tired of hearing me talk about getting familiarised with the local playing conditions but any cricketer will tell you that it really does make a world of difference. Even if you're Jacques Kallis or Graeme Smith and have played over here plenty of times before you need to spend time in the middle in the build up to a Test match. Same thing for a bowler: you need to get used to what lengths to bowl and to what you need to make the ball do to dismiss international batsmen.
But even without these two factors, I think England had the edge anyway. They have the better bowling attack, partly because it contains Graeme Swann and South Africa don't have a spinner of that calibre. But also because England's pace attack is a ferocious one in great form. That said, Dale Steyn is capable of destroying any batting line-up in any conditions and England may be more vulnerable than most because they don't have any left-handers in the middle order. If the two openers go cheaply and Steyn gets in the groove, the hosts could be in trouble. But rather than relying on the rest of the team to back him up, I'd rather just take Dale Steyn at 3.4 to be top SA wicket-taker over the series.
I've said before that any chance to back England at home at odds-against to win a Test series is one we shouldn't turn down and this is the case here. 2.16 looks a really good price about the number one Test team in the world who are on a roll, high on confidence and have no injury concerns. For a slightly more speculative wager on the correct score market, and with the weather being pretty horrendous so far this summer, I'd be looking at 1-0 England at around 6.8.
Finally, a word on the top South African batsman market. One could make a case for just about anyone in the top seven because this really is a star-studded line-up the tourists have. Jacques Kallis, the cucumber cool senior batsman of the side will have plenty of backers as will the skipper Graeme Smith who has an outstanding record in England. But I prefer the claims of AB De Villiers who will come in lower down the order and not have to face the new ball when it's moving all over the place. He's a proper class act this guy and looks the value at 5.8.
Back England to win the Series @ 2.16
Back England to win 1-0 @ 6.8
Back Dale Steyn to be Top South African series wicket-taker @ 3.4
Back AB De Villiers to be Top South African series batsman @ 5.8
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