After the Champions Trophy and T20 commitments, the wait for the English Test summer to start is finally over, as the Three Lions take on South Africa at Lord’s, starting this morning.
That wait must have felt interminable for Joe Root – appointed as Test skipper in February, but only taking charge of the side for the first time this week.
Root inherits a team in transition – the eight defeats in 2017 equalled their worst record in a calendar year, and they couldn’t hold a candle to India in a 4-0 series defeat just before Christmas.
Since then Alastair Cook has relinquished the captaincy to Root, though he does return to the ranks at the top of the order, which could be vital given the inexperience of opening partner Keaton Jennings, and the question marks over number three Gary Ballance.
Ballance’s selection for this Test appears a timid one – a far cry from the adventure expected under the new skipper.
The Yorkshireman is onto his third and possibly final chance as an international cricketer, and Hampshire’s Liam Dawson also appears to show a side trying to avoid risk, rather than taking one.
Dawson’s inclusion as a second spinner behind Moeen Ali indicates England think it will spin at Lord’s – though with the sun out, bowlers from both sides will have plenty to do.
South African tours of these shores usually herald the end of England captains, rather than their starts.
Series wins in 2008 and 2012 put paid to Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, with Nasser Hussain falling on his sword in 2003 – the Proteas are unbeaten in their last three visits to England.
They’ve also won four of their last five Tests at Lord’s, and will certainly fancy their chances in this match after four series wins on the bounce.
Preparations have been complicated with captain Faf du Plessis missing after the birth of his first child, with the world-class AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn also absent through injury.
Stand-in skipper Dean Elgar is still able to call on high-class veterans Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, and young tyros Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada for what still looks a formidable side.
Fast bowler Rabada, still just 22 but with 158 international wickets to his name, could be the most exciting of the lot – he took a match-winning 4/39 as South Africa skittled England in the ODI series on his first visit to HQ, and has the pace to worry anyone.
Perhaps due to home advantage, England are the favourites in the betting (a general evens compared to 3/1 for South Africa), but sadly I can’t see a winner this week.
The sun is expected to beat down on a Lord’s surface that has only served up three results in the last two seasons of County Championship cricket – and one of those was a manufactured run chase as Middlesex clinched the title last year.
Expect plenty of runs, and some very tired bowlers. I’ll be backing the draw at 5/2 with 188BET.
Usually if there’s any Englishman to back with the bat, it is Root.
The last two skippers, Kevin Pietersen and Cook, both began their lives as captains with centuries, and Root could easily join the club here.
Averaging 57 at Lord’s, 188BET make Root 5/2 to be England’s top batsman this week.
Draw - 5/2 (188BET)
Joe Root top England batsman - 5/2 (188BET)