England in position to capitalize on unsettled South Africa
JOHANNESBURG (AP) The biggest issue for England heading into the third test against South Africa appears to be a virus that has put opening batsman Alex Hales' participation in doubt. Compare that to the top-ranked Proteas, who are in the midst of one of their most unsettled periods in recent times.
Off a first series loss to India in 11 years, Hashim Amla suddenly resigned as South Africa captain midway through this England series, and interim skipper AB de Villiers said Wednesday he's not sure if he wants the job permanently.
''I'm still very committed (to the team),'' De Villiers said. ''To the job (of captain), I'm not sure.''
As well as his doubts over taking the captaincy long-term, De Villiers also said there was ''a little bit of truth'' in reports that he had been considering retirement after the series.
''The two test matches, for now, is all I'm focusing on,'' he said.
In charge for the remainder of the four-match contest, De Villiers' challenge will be to ensure the uncertainty surrounding test cricket's No. 1 team and its best player doesn't affect a young squad ahead of the decisive final two games against England.
The third test starts Thursday at the Wanderers in Johannesburg.
England leads 1-0 following a strong win in the series opener in Durban. A victory in Johannesburg or in the final game in Centurion, both pitches with reputations for delivering results, would land England its first series win over South Africa in more than a decade. Significantly, it would only be England's second win in South Africa since the country returned from the sporting isolation of the apartheid years.
It would also topple South Africa from the No. 1 ranking - a ranking that appears a little shaky anyway.
''It would be a great achievement for this side to come here and beat South Africa away from home, and we're in a position to do that,'' England captain Alastair Cook said. ''The opportunity is there and it's just whether we're good enough to take it.
''It's an exciting time to play on what are probably two result wickets in these next two games. We need to win one to win the series. That is a great situation to be in.''
The news on Hales, Cook said, is that the opener has ''a bit of a bug.'' He practiced on Wednesday, albeit alone so he didn't infect the rest of the team, Cook said. Should he not be fit, Gary Ballance would likely come in for England.
Other than that, England is content with its progress in the series, where it was the dominant force in Durban and for the first half of the drawn second test in Cape Town.
England also may be in a better position to take advantage of the bouncy, quick, fast-bowler friendly pitches in Johannesburg and Centurion despite sounds from the South African camp that those conditions offer the home team a way back into the series.
With the return to fitness of James Anderson in Cape Town, England's fast bowling attack is at full strength with Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, and the added backup of allrounder Ben Stokes.
''If the ball does fly through and seams around we have got a pretty good seam attack ... I am very comfortable with this team playing in any conditions,'' Cook said.
South Africa is again without the injured Dale Steyn and is not the fast-bowling force it used to be. Steyn will miss a second straight match with a right shoulder problem. Morne Morkel will lead the attack in the third test, while his three reinforcements will be chosen from a pretty inexperienced group: Kagiso Rabada has played just four tests, Chris Morris (one test), Kyle Abbott (six tests) and Hardus Viljoen is uncapped.
South Africa may take a gamble on Viljoen, a muscular fast bowler who has energy and sheer pace and who plays his domestic cricket at the Wanderers. His enthusiasm could give a much-needed lift to an apparently unhappy South African team and its jaded stand-in captain.
''In the last two or three years I've been searching for the right answers to play a little bit less cricket in one way or another, to keep myself fresh and to keep enjoying the game,'' De Villiers said. ''I've found myself on the pitch in the past few years, every now and then, not enjoying myself as much as I should be and that raises concerns within myself.''