The situation has improved markedly for England. Before the Centurion and Cape Town Tests there were not really any selection meetings. Instead there was a head count to assess whether there were 11 fit men to send out on to the field.
But in Port Elizabeth, despite the fact Jofra Archer withdrew from the net session on the eve of the match after bowling no more than a dozen deliveries, there remain a few options, which is what captains and coaches always say they prefer. This is probably true most of the time although just occasionally a benefit can be spied when there are no choices available; it means no mistakes can be made.
In this case the discussion has centred on England’s preferred bowling attack. They have decided to delay making a final choice until Thursday morning to allow themselves one last chance to assess how strong the relevant bowlers are looking and, of course, to stare at the pitch. With Archer all but ruled out the choice is between Mark Wood and Chris Woakes for the final pace bowling slot.
Staring at the playing surface was a futile exercise since it was covered by a tarpaulin to protect it not from rain but a fierce sun. England must be wary that the pitch will become too dry, which is the state of most of the Eastern Cape. Beyond the cricketing fraternity the locals are eager for rain.
It is expected to be very hot for a couple of days. Hence there is much talk of the possibility of reverse swing at a ground that rarely produces the same bounce as elsewhere in South Africa. Right next to the Test pitch is an old wicket that is very bare, which is considered ideal for bouncing the ball in to the keeper. Such a process may rough up one side of the ball quickly and this enhances the possibility of the reverse swing that modern teams depend on and talk about in equal measure.
This may well influence selection and it seems to enhance the chances of Wood playing. When last sighted in the middle he was adept at reverse-swinging the ball at pace. The last Test he played was in St Lucia in February last year when he achieved career-best figures of five for 41 from only 8.2 overs; the problem is that he has not played a red-ball game since. In that Test, which resulted in a handsome England victory by 232 runs, he was required to bowl only 20.2 overs. The workload is likely to be much greater at St George’s Park even though this venue now has a habit of producing results. Wood’s last match of any sort was the World Cup final on 14 July.
In another era it would be unthinkable that Wood should be tossed into the team without any cricket outside of a net. However modern players do not regard this as an insurmountable hurdle; nor do selectors. Moreover Wood supporters point out he had not bowled in the middle for two months before his pace rocked West Indies. So is an 11-month absence anything to worry about? We may be about to find out but there is no denying his selection would be a major risk.
Then there is Woakes, whose name has not been on the tip of many tongues going into the Test, especially when the yearning for the X-factor is mentioned. Woakes provides the safer option since he has taken more wickets and scored more runs than any of the other contenders.
He can hardly be described as the elephant in the room but no one has been talking about him. In his favour is the fact he last played in a Test as recently as 3 December, in New Zealand, a mere six weeks ago. In the end it is more about how they play than who they play. Even so the decision on the final pace bowler will keep them agonising.
Joe Root has decided he will play a spinner and that will be Dom Bess, who was miserly with the ball in Cape Town, which made it so much easier for the captain to juggle his attack. Perhaps South Africa were too cautious against him at Newlands and they may change their approach. This may disrupt Root’s plans, although it could also enhance Bess’s chances of more wickets.
It is remarkable that Bess should find himself playing his second Test of the winter but he will be up for it. There is also the possibility if the sun continues to beat down that the ball may turn a little more than in Cape Town.
South Africa may change their team as well even though Faf du Plessis has been keen to emphasise their fighting spirit in the Cape Town defeat. On a slower surface Du Plessis may wish to sharpen up his attack by playing another 30-year-old debutant, Dane Paterson, rather than Dwaine Pretorius. That is another ticklish decision but before this game Du Plessis’s biggest worry may relate to his own contributions with the bat, which have been paltry.