Cricket: England v South Africa

Mark Nicholas preview: A battle of minds

England will not be able to bully the tough-minded South Africans as they have other teams of late

Mark Nicholas preview: A battle of minds

The prospect of watching England play South Africa is a riveting one. I see the series as a battle of personalities and minds.

There’s so much to savour, but one thing to look out for is the tussle between the strength of mind of the South African batsmen and the England bowling attack.

England have been able to bully sides a lot of late, but South Africa won’t let that happen. My guess is that South Africa will have done a lot of homework on Graeme Swann and I can't imagine they will come without a plan against him. Swann has been too dominant and central to everything England have done in the last few years.

They will be thinking about upsetting England’s rhythm, which is based on having three seamers and a spinner rotating at the other end. Teams that have gone after Swann have done well and I think it’s a very good way to play against England.

From England’s point of view, they need to undermine the Graeme Smith-Jacques Kallis axis at the top of the order. These two players have vast experience and their performances with the bat could determine the series outcome.

AB de Villiers is a top-class batsman, too, but there’s something about Smith and Kallis being at the heart of the side. They are so classically South African in their attitude, demeanour and build. They are huge, strong men who love a scrap and if you can chip away at them you are getting at the team’s underbelly.

Something else which fascinates me is the ongoing Pietersen saga.  He is interesting not just from the point of view of his relationship with his birthplace of South Africa, but from the point of view of his own team.

It’s hard to imagine that the England players feel completely comfortable about all Pietersen's to-ing and fro-ing at will. Maybe, they are as tight as they say and maybe it’s all irrelevant. But he will certainly be feeling that the heat is on to perform.

There’s no doubt that Pietersen’s magnificent double-hundred for last week against a decent Lancashire attack showed that he means business. He hadn’t played for a month and it was a hell of an innings.

One more big factor in the series is the injury to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, which makes it likely that South Africa will use AB de Villiers as a wicket-keeper batsman. Although this lengthens their batting in some ways, whoever comes in will have to bat at seven as a specialist batsman.

It will be interesting to see how they deal with that. They’ll have to bat with the tail when the character of the innings has already been set. JP Duminy will probably be the batsman to come in. It’s a much lower position than he normally bat, but he’s a high-class player.

England have great stocks of self-belief and they know how hard they are to beat in England. Having said that one of the Tests is at Headingley, where England have not played well in recent years and where they lost to South Africa in 2008.

Equally, South Africa have never played well at The Oval. So, if those first two games go to form, it will be one all going into the final match at Lord’s.

England do have one advantage which could be key. They are much better prepared. South Africa have not had much competitive cricket of late and may be undercooked. I really do not understand why modern teams go on important tours without giving themselves enough preparation time.