A tour to South Africa always felt very close to an Ashes series to me. You play at big grounds, the crowds are intimidating and South Africa are an aggressive bunch of cricketers.
You don’t get lucky and win in South Africa. You have to produce high quality cricket over six weeks starting with your preparation, and then on the field session after session, day after day.
We won there in 2004 beating a very strong side over five matches. It was one of our greatest achievements as a team.
This South African team is in transition but in Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn they have a bowling combination that can win a Test match in an hour. England will have to be technically correct, mentally strong and enjoy that little bit of luck to survive when those two click.
This is probably the last time England will face Steyn at his high-quality best. His body is starting to ache and that is something England can work on by keeping him in the field for long periods. He will not be able to bowl at the same intensity he did five years ago over a sustained spell but he will still have that one period when will he be outstanding. He bowls so well at right-handers and England have only Alastair Cook and Ben Stokes in the top six who are left-handed – which is a worry.
If England are to win in South Africa they have to answer two questions. Can their seamers continue to bowl the disciplined lines and length they showed in the UAE? Can the batsmen put a stop to the dramatic collapses that have cost them so dearly in recent years? If they do both those things then they will be competitive and can beat South Africa. If they don’t, then South Africa will win the series, and probably quite comfortably.
England will fancy this trip more than the UAE. They will also take heart from the fact they played better in the UAE than South Africa managed in similar conditions in India.
South Africa have always fought hard but in India they threw in the towel. That tells me they are more vulnerable than they have been for years.
But South Africa will also look at England and see a team that has lost six Test matches this year, including three at home, and think they are there for the taking. They are both vulnerable. It should make for an exciting series.
We always say the first Test of any series is vital. But I think that is doubly so when you have two vulnerable teams.
Confidence will be everything in a four-Test series wrapped up in exactly a month.
If England lose in Durban it will be their seventh defeat of 2015; a poor record. If South Africa are beaten it will be their fourth defeat in five Tests; confidence will be rock bottom. So both teams will know it is crucial to get players in form.
If England can get the new faces playing well early on it will go a long way to helping them win the series.
If it goes the opposite way with a Nick Compton, James Taylor or Alex Hales struggling in that first Test against Steyn and Morkel then cracks will appear and become wider as the series progresses. Against bowlers like Steyn and Morkel you have to find your mojo early.
You have to find form and the right mentality as soon as you arrive in South Africa. It is one of the hardest places to get back in form because South Africans are relentless when they think they have found your weakness. They are a disciplined group and generally disciplined teams are very good at sticking to pre-agreed tactics. If they find a plan that works against you early in a series then I’m sorry but you are in trouble.
But South Africa are a team that if you find a way of playing against them early on then they do not always have the imagination to think of a different approach. They are not proactive.
But England’s big worry is batting collapses. They have a lot of talent in the group and guys who can whack the ball out of the ground, but there is real concern within the England camp about collapses. They do not have enough players with strong enough techniques to survive the first 20 minutes.
A lot of England’s collapses in recent times have not been down to great bowling but rather because their techniques have not been up to it.
When you first go out against Steyn and Morkel you have to have a simple plan.
You can’t think about scoring too many against those guys when you first go to the wicket. You have to look to survive for the first 20 minutes and then work towards scoring runs. Stick to low risk cricket shots. Don’t think ‘I have a cover drive, pull shot, square cut and hook’ or that ‘I am going to attack balls with width outside off stump’.
Instead stay in, try and play straight and leave the ball outside the off-stump. Wait for that ball on the hip that offers an easy scoring option. It will come because Steyn and Morkel are aggressive bowlers who search for wickets. They will not consistently bowl in a channel outside off stump like a Pollock or McGrath. They will strive for wickets and take risks so you have to be strong enough with your technique to nullify the danger ball on or around off-stump, be wary of the short ball and then wait for your chance.
Bring out the pull or cut when you have got to 20 or 30 because by then you have gauged the pace of the pitch. It is important that guys like Compton and Hales have a good defence. Nobody survives long in Test cricket without being able to defend the ball.
If England can score runs then they have enough quality to create 20 wicket-taking opportunities with the ball.
This is where the ability to handle pressure comes in for the bowlers. In the UAE it was easier to bowl as a seamer because there were fewer slips, fielders were in front of the bat and so you had to bowl a really bad ball to be hit. The pressure was off because nobody really expected the seamers to have an impact. It was down to the spinners.
But in South Africa England will have three or four slips, there will be lots of gaps in front of the wicket and the bowlers will have to bowl a fuller length without protection in the field.
They have to ask questions, especially with the new ball. The Kookaburra soon goes soft so England have to keep tempting the batter to come forward and drive. Do not go into bowling a safe length, a little bit short. It makes bowling figures look pretty but does not win Test matches. They have the experience and class. It is about stepping up to bowl England to victory.