DURBAN, South Africa (AP) England will begin its bid to knock South Africa off the top of the test rankings without its attack spearhead after James Anderson was ruled out of Saturday's first cricket test at Kingsmead.
The 33-year-old Anderson played a limited role in England's warm-up matches after complaining of stiffness in his right calf, and on Thursday it was confirmed that he would not be risked for the opening match of a four-test series.
The absence of England's leading test wicket-taker leaves the door open for Chris Woakes to play his first test in 16 months. He is expected to join Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Ben Stokes in a four-man pace attack, which will be supplemented by the spin of Moeen Ali.
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''Of course it's disappointing when you lose the spearhead of your attack but I think it's just a real slight niggle and the management decided it really wasn't worth the risk in the first test,'' Broad said of Anderson's injury.
''He's disappointed but with the strength in depth we've got in this group it's not a hammer blow to us.''
Despite the loss and its low ranking of sixth, England can go into the series confident of its ability to take advantage of a wounded opponent, with the Proteas smarting from a 3-0 defeat in a four-match series in India.
That defeat highlighted South Africa's stuttering transition following the retirements of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, with their replacements struggling to find their feet at international level.
The series loss cut South Africa's lead at the top of the International Cricket Council's test rankings from 19 points to four, ahead of India, and a series defeat to England would see it lose its top ranking to either India or Australia.
However, Broad said that England is not reading too much into South Africa's defeat in India, and predicted a close-fought series between two teams whose recent fortunes have been very similar.
Although England beat Australia 3-2 to regain the Ashes earlier this year, a 2-0 series loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates followed.
''Having played a lot of cricket I know that the conditions they faced in India were so different to what we're going to face here,'' said Broad. ''Those wickets were designed for the Indian spinners, but it would be a surprise if they were facing spin after five overs here.''
He added: ''We didn't win in the UAE, so we've not won for four test matches. So both teams are so similar it's going to be a pretty epic series I think.''
Alex Hales will become Alastair Cook's eighth opening partner since these two sides last met in a test match more than three years ago, and will face a fearsome challenge on his test debut after Dale Steyn was passed fit.
''He's been a handful for those of us who have had the misfortune of facing him in the nets,'' South Africa captain Hashim Amla said of Steyn.
Steyn missed South Africa's last three tests in India with a groin injury, but will return to lead an attack that will feature Morne Morkel, spinner Dane Piedt, and either Kyle Abbott or Kagiso Rabada.
The second test starts at Newlands in Cape Town on Jan. 2, and will be followed by further matches at The Wanderers and Centurion.