Ed Hawkins reckons England's slow starts on the road could continue at Centurion from Boxing Day...
"There is no evidence that England have solved their issues with the bat. And why would there be? It will take several series before we can trust this England batting line-up"
South Africa v England
Thursday 26 December 08.00
TV: live on Sky Sports
Home injury worries
South Africa Have lost Temba Bavuma to a hip injury. That's another experienced player down in what is a green squad - there are six uncapped players.
Lungi Ngidi, the pacer, is arguably the biggest miss because of the terrific partnership he forms with Kagiso Rabada. Anrich Nortje and Beuran Hendricks, both tyros, will go up against each other for a slot alongside Vernon Philander. They must also decide between Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwaine Pretorius for a bowling all-rounder role.
Rassie van der Dussen, a calm head, is set to debut and bat at No.5 in pace of Bavuma. England may find him difficult to budge, which is just as well as there's not a lot to get excited about in the middle order.
Possible XI Elgar, Markram, Hamza, Du Plessis, Van der Dussen, De Kock, Phehlukwayo, Philander, Maharaj, Rabada, Nortje
Tourists go for pace
England's preparations have been hampered by an illness bug that has swept through the bowling group. But Jack Leach, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer are likely to make themselves available for selection.
Leach, though, is becoming sidelined. Coach Chris Silverwood has admitted they are looking at playing an all-seam attack. Chris Woakes and Mark Wood standby. James Anderson, fit again, returns to his role as attack leader.
With the bat, Dom Sibley will get another chance to show he has the right stuff. Jonny Bairstow, recalled for no reason whatsoever, will have to bide his time. Runs for Joe Root, Joe Denly and Ollie Pope in the warm-ups have given England a much-needed boost.
Probable XI Burns, Sibley, Denly, Root, Stokes, Pope, Buttler, Woakes, Broad, Archer, Anderson.
South Africa have won nine of the last ten at Centurion, losing only to Australia in 2014. Pakistan (six wickets), India (135 runs), New Zealand (204) and England (280) have been routed since 2016. The first-innings scores in those nine (most recent first, 1-2 denote match won by side batting first or second) read: 136-2/180-2/409-1/397-1/552-1/475-1/481-1/335-1/181-2. South Africa batting first, then, are a strong chance. That Aussie defeat came when they had to bat last.
England in trouble batting second
England are marginal favourites at 2.3811/8, South Africa 2.407/5 and the draw 6.4011/2. We cannot abide England at such numbers on the road.
For a start, there's their awful recent record in first Tests away from home, which reads: LLWLLDWWDLLLDWD. Two of those wins were against Bangladesh and another last winter was against Sri Lanka after they won the toss and batted on a burner.
Secondly, there is no evidence that they have solved their issues with the bat. And why would there be? It will take several series before we can trust this England batting line-up. They are yet to prove themselves and defeat in New Zealand hardly suggested it was going to be an easy route.
It is true South Africa are suffering from administrative discord but does that impact players? Coach Mark Boucher and head honcho Graeme Smith should get them pulling in the right direction.
There is, in truth, little to choose between the teams. Both are rebuilding somewhat. Both have exciting pace attacks. But Centurion advantage is key and South Africa should feel confident of a 1-0 lead.
Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock have solid records in the last five years at Centurion. Du Plessis has 229 runs in three matches and De Kock 327 in four. Du Plessis is 5/2 jolly with Betfair Sportsbook for top runscorer in South Africa's first dig, De Kock 7/2. Aiden Markram, a home specialist, catches the eye at 4s and Dean Elgar at 7/2 likewise.
For England, Joe Root is the forever bad jolly at 21/10. Burns and Stokes are 4/1. Pope is eye-catching at 8s and, as we've said before, it will take one knock before that price disappears forever.
There is only one spinner in the top 18 wicket-takers in the last five years at Centurion. So Silverwood is right. The man at the top is Rabada with 28 in four. His insane strike rate of a wicket every 28.9 balls suggests Sportsbook's 21/10 about him being top runscorer will take a hit.
Ed Hawkins P-L
Based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate. Figures 2013-2016 on 1pt level stakes. New points system (0.5pt-5) introduced for 2017. Includes Hawk-Eye stats column p-l
Back South Africa batting first 2.1011/10 or better (3pts)