It’s an opportunity for both South Africa and West Indies to find form and test out combinations
West Indies and South Africa meet so seldomly that they may wonder if the other still plays international cricket and they are about to find out they do, and quite similarly. While their encounters of old were largely dominated by a South Africa side on the up against a West Indian outfit on the decline – and their last one in the Caribbean was in 2010, at the same time as South Africa was hosting the football World Cup – those roles have just about reversed. That means this series has all the ingredients to be among the most closely competed contests going around.
Both are teams in transition albeit from different directions. South Africa enter this series from as low a spot on the ICC rankings as they have ever been at No. 7, and West Indies, from a position of progress. They sit at No.6. From their mid-table places, they both maintain they are eyeing the top spot and this is step one. It’s actually not.
Because this series was due to be played last year, it is still part of the new World Test Championship but without much consequence*. Instead, there’s the opportunity to find some form before they will really need it, to test out combinations and to learn to play under new leaders. Kraigg Brathwaite is in his second series in charge of West Indies while Dean Elgar will lead for the first time as permanently appointed captain.
The battle lines are expected to be drawn by the bowling attacks, with both teams acknowledging that as their strongest suits. While they don’t have the reputations of the pace packs of the past, they have the chance to make bigger names for themselves in favourable conditions against batting line-ups that are prone to losing wickets in clusters. As such, building partnerships will be key and the series could hinge on which side can produce a match-winning one.
Ultimately, and unpopular as this may be, the Test series will be a curtain-raiser for the five-match T20I rubber that follows and will form part of both sides’ build-up to the T20 World Cup in October.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
West Indies DDWWL
South Africa LLWWL
In the spotlight
Jason Holder is just 29 years old but is already talking like someone in the winter of his international career. After being removed as captain in Tests and ODIs, Holder told ESPNcricinfo he is now, “enjoying however many days I have playing international cricket.” His age and his form suggest there should be plenty of those and West Indies intend to get as much out of him as possible. Coach Phil Simmons called him one of the most technically sound batters in the squad and indicated Holder will have a big role to play in the line-up, as well as with the ball in hand. While Holder has already played a series since being relieved of the leadership responsibility, this one will be an opportunity for him to “express myself a bit more and have more fun.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Dean Elgar , whose leadership journey is only just beginning. Elgar has been in charge of South Africa once before when Faf du Plessis was on paternity leave and at the time suggested long-term captaincy was not in his future. Four years have passed since then and Elgar has changed his mind. In the lead-up to this series, his team-mates spoke about how much he wants the job and how it’s unlikely to change him as a rough-around-the-edges and fun-loving personality. What they will really hope is that it also doesn’t change him as a run-scorer. Elgar has been the most consistent of South Africa’s batters in the last three years albeit he wants to contribute more readily. Without du Plessis, he is also the most capped member of the squad and the expectation will be on him to make his experience count.
Keegan Petersen is set to make his Test debut for South Africa Stu Forster/Getty Images
Kieran Powell is back in the Test side after an absence of more than two years and will partner his captain at the top of the order, followed by another returnee, Shai Hope. That may leave no room for Nkrumah Bonner. Shannon Gabriel’s hamstring injury, which has ruled him out of the series, makes a debut for teenager Jayden Seales highly likely. If that happens, it will be Seales’ second first-class match.
West Indies (probable): 1 Kraigg Brathwaite (capt), 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Shai Hope, 4 Kyle Mayers, 5 Jermaine Blackwood, 6 Jason Holder, 7 Joshua da Silva, (wk) 8 Alzarri Joseph, 9 Rahkeem Cornwall, 10 Kemar Roach, 11 Jayden Seales.
Keegan Petersen is set to make his debut in the middle order and will likely bat below Rassie van der Dussen. Temba Bavuma is struggling with a left hip problem and he will undergo a fitness test on Wednesday. If he doesn’t play, Kyle Verreynne will make his Test debut. Though South Africa have travelled with four spinners, conditions in the lead-up to the Test have appeared to favour the quicks and Keshav Maharaj is set to operate as the only slower bowler. The four-man pace attack will include Wiaan Mulder as the allrounder.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar (capt), 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Temba Bavuma/Kyle Verreynne, 5 Keegan Petersen, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Lungi Ngidi.
Pitch and conditions
Before leaving South Africa, new captain Elgar said he had anecdotal evidence that conditions would be slow and low but the visitors quickly revised that opinion on arrival. Bowling coach Charl Langeveldt noted that not only had he never been to the Caribbean when it rains but also that the combination of humidity, the Dukes ball and recent conditions favouring quicks convinced him that there may be much more in it for his pace pack than was initially thought. That’s good news for those of us who want to see a battle of the bowlers but not so good for batters on either side, whose confidence is low. The weather is set to stay warm throughout the match with some rain predicted for Monday.
Stats and trivia
“At a time before the West Indies series, England had intra-squad matches and used those to gauge their selections as well. We live in different times. Opportunity is not the same. We have to create measures and opportunities to get to where we want to get and try to do it as best as possible.”
CWI chief selector Roger Harper on picking players based on intra-squad matches for the first Test
“We are aware of the failures we have had in the past. The one thing that we can control is our preparation. That’s a key foundation to try and give you success in this format. We have prepared very well and with preparation there is no guarantee of the outcome. We are very aware of what’s happened in the past and we are trying to rectify that bearing in mind that we’ve lost quite a few experienced batters in the past. It’s now time for guys to put their hands up. The opportunities are there for guys now.”
South Africa’s captain Dean Elgar hopes to make the team’s training count on match day
*1215GMT: The story was updated to reflect that the Test series is still part of the WTC cycle
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent