On one side, we have men answering to fresh names such as Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan, Mason Crane and Toby Roland-Jones.
On the other hand, we have the likes of Theunis de Bruyn, Aiden Markram and Heino Kuhn.
Whatever be the final elevens at Lord’s this Thursday, there are bound to be a tinge of green in the teams as they walk out at the home of cricket. Both the sides seem to be investing heavily in newcomers.
However, there is a very striking difference.
For one side experimentation is a luxury, for the other it is an unconvincing response to urgent necessity.
The English team is based on solid foundation, the novel additions akin to experimental friezes on time-tested fortification. Whereas the South African core seems to have been scooped out by the merciless spoon of fate and they are busy trying to substitute the substance of the side with every available, untested, untried material at their disposal.
Let us take a closer look.
Malan and Roland-Jones are senior pros in the county circuit. Given that the first Test is taking place at Lord’s, it does make enormous sense to have these two men hovering around the prospect of inclusion. Malan has been leading Middlesex whenever James Franklin has not been available and has been among plenty of runs. Roland-Jones has not really achieved his usual amount of success this summer, especially after his impressive showing in 2015 and 2016, but no one is more at home running in from the Pavilion End of Lord’s than this fast-medium bowler. It will be good to remember that even when Test veteran Steven Finn is in the side, it is Roland-Jones who is given the new ball — because both of them prefer to bowl with the century old red-brick pavilion behind them.
Surrey’s Stoneman is an interesting prospect in England’s long search for a partner for Alastair Cook, and 892 runs at 57.46 this season with 3 hundreds do justify his call up. Two fifties against South Africa A for the England Lions also underline his claims to the opening slot.
Only the rookie leg-spinner Crane is a surprise probable, but I very much doubt that he will make it to the final team.
All these names wait to be fitted alongside the durable core of Cook, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, the regulars, the mainstays. They are as stable a unit as any side can desire. England’s squad can be justly termed an exciting mix of novelty and experience.
In contrast, the South African outfit looks positively rickety.
AB de Villiers is still on his break from Test matches and it is increasingly doubtful whether he will play the format again. Dale Steyn is not going to be the legendary spearhead of this attack. And captain Faf du Plessis has gone on an understandable paternity break after his wife went through a difficult child birth.
For South Africa, it is like asking the body to function without the lungs and heart.
Dean Elgar, combative, gutsy, takes over the reins for the first time with the unenviable task of captaining a side desperate to repair giant operational holes with band-aid solutions.
It is a blessing that Vernon Philander has been declared fit, but he has some serious lost ground to make up. Especially after a pathetic New Zealand tour saw him go through the motion in three Tests with just two wickets to show for his efforts.
There is the classy Hashim Amla in the middle order as well. And in wicket-keeper Quentin de Kok they do have a classy young batsman improving by leaps and bounds.
But the rest of the side look thin on substance and rather rudderless in approach.
With home advantage having become such a key factor in the recent years, the South African tourists in England look a ragged outfit as we await the first Test.
Perhaps Elgar’s dogged attitude (the man to have beside you in the trenches, according to Barry Richards) will be able to enthuse them into being competitive. They may surprise us yet.
However, as of now, England go into the first Test as definite favourites.