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South Africa v England Test Series: Can England arrest poor form?

Weeks after their disappointing Test series defeat in New Zealand, England are back in action as they gear up to take on South Africa for a festive extravaganza.

After such a memorable year for English cricket, which included a historic ODI World Cup win, and the most thrilling Ashes series since 2005, this marquee four-match series is a fitting way to end the year and bring in a new one.

The series begins Boxing Day at Centurion in one of the most iconic Test matches on the calendar and, unlike the New Zealand series, there are World Test Championship points to play for with 30 on offer for each win. The bookies are installing England as early favourites to follow up their 2016 success in South Africa with, another series win at 11/8; but with such a poor away record, it’s a tough one to call at this stage.

Both teams are in transition with plenty of flaws but, equally, plenty of world-class talent, which should make for more entertaining Test match cricket.

Are England slowly turning a corner?

It’s been more than a year since Joe Root’s men managed to record a series victory, home or away, the last coming in Sri Lanka with an impressive 3-0 win. Since then, there have been a ton of new faces, but defeats in West Indies, New Zealand and a 2-2 draw in the Ashes against Australia suggest it’s a long road before England can return to the elite of Test cricket.

It seems the likes of Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope will be persisted with, although the latter did show promise with an impressive 75 in the second Test against New Zealand. Joe Root’s timely 226 in the same match was a big boost as the England captain finally played himself into much-needed form; he will be tasked to lead an inexperience batting line-up once again.

Root was England’s top run scorer in the New Zealand series and you can get odds of 2/1 for him to repeat the feat once again. It would be premature to rule out newly crowned BBC Sports Personality of the year winner Ben Stokes to score the most runs at 6/1. Stokes smashed his highest Test score of 258 in South Africa four years ago and, aside from his heroic innings in the World Cup final, played one of the best knocks in recent memory; when he struck an unbeaten 135 to lead his team to the unlikeliest of victories in the fourth Ashes Test.

Bowling wise, England welcome back record wicket-taker James Anderson, after a four-month injury lay-off. The 37-year-old hasn’t showed signs of slowing down in recent years apart from several injury problems, averaging a healthy 22.45 with the ball since August 2018. Given the mostly bowler-friendly conditions typical of South Africa and providing he stays injury free, Anderson to be England top wicket-taker at 2/1 is tempting but injury questions marks still linger.

In that case, Jofra Archer, also 2/1, comes into the equation. Despite only taking two wickets in the New Zealand series, Archer demonstrated what he can do in the summer, taking 22 wickets with two five-wicket hauls in the Ashes and South African conditions should suit him to the ground.

Flawed teams make it hard to call

As mentioned before, this is a tough one to call between two flawed teams. Firstly, England’s away record since beating South Africa in 2016 reads five wins in 19 Tests. Secondly, South Africa have lost their last five matches, including a shambolic 2-0 loss to Sri Lanka in their last home assignment, but have beaten Australia and India in the past couple of years.

But with the legendary pair of Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn retiring, their latest squad has a new look to it, with no less than six uncapped players. That’s probably why a 2-2 series draw at 7/2 is the favourite scoreline with the bookies and it’s not hard to agree with that prediction

England are very inconsistent but have the players to turn it on and, with home advantage, it’s hard not to see South Africa being able to produce moments of magic either. Throw in the fact England have drawn two of their last 21 Tests and South Africa none of their past 24, then save for bad weather – which can never be ruled out in cricket – and it’s highly feasible we won’t see a draw between the two teams.

If ever you needed a good excuse to escape the family this Christmas, hiding away and indulging in up to 20 days of high-octane Test cricket seems as good as any.

By Iqbal Johal
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