England end a historic 2019 by taking on South Africa in the First Test in Centurion this week. But far from it being a chance to reflect on the summer’s World Cup win, the beginning of a tough series comes at a time when Joe Root’s side need to find a new direction, and quickly.
Whereas the 1-0 series defeat in New Zealand recently was not part of the World Test Championship, the trip to South Africa is. That brings a greater sense of urgency to the rebuild England are attempting to undertake in the four-game series.
Not only do Root and new coach Chris Silverwood have a multitude of questions to answer still regarding the construction of their line-up, but the readiness of Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Ollie Pope and Jack Leach after illness remains unclear. Ben Stokes’ participation in Centurion was also thrown into doubt on Tuesday when he rushed to be at the bedside of his father Ged, who was taken seriously ill after arriving in South Africa ahead of the series.
The late selection headaches could alter Silverwood’s plans to once again go with an all-seam attack despite England’s failure to take 20 wickets with a similar line-up against New Zealand in Hamilton last time out. That marked the first occasion since the Headingley Test in 2012 - famous for the Kevin Pietersen Textgate episode - that England had overlooked spin, and it would be a bold move for them to attempt it again.
"Obviously in Hamilton we looked at all the stats, who took wickets at the ground, and it showed that spin didn't really play much part in the games, or certainly have much effect on the games,” Silverwood said earlier this week.
"We look at the stats for this ground, it's the same thing, you're looking at wickets taken by seam, wickets taken by spin and the averages that go along with them, it suggests that seam is the way forward, and the thing that has most effect on the game here, so we're certainly looking at that."
With England at a crossroads, it won’t only be Silverwood whose actions will be under an intense spotlight over the next six weeks. While Root’s 226 in Hamilton eased the pressure a little on the captain, and Rory Burns’ century seemed to cement his place at the top of the order for the foreseeable future, England need to show that they can build a patient innings in bowler-friendly conditions against top-quality opposition.
The likes of Dom Sibley, Joe Denly and Pope all still need to convince the vast majority of onlookers that they have the mentality to bat for long periods in the Test arena and Jonny Bairstow has some rebuilding of his reputation to do. Meanwhile, there is no certainty as to how England’s bowling attack will shape up with all three of Broad, Archer and the returning Jimmy Anderson fit and available.
And while this is not the South Africa of 10 years ago - there is no Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel or AB de Villiers for the Proteas to call upon these days - England cannot afford to take their opposition for granted as captain Faf du Plessis looks to lead a new generation of South African stars to the top of the world.
The last time England travelled to this part of the world, Stokes’ sensational 258 in Cape Town was the highlight of a 2-1 series win. But if the World Cup winners are to start making inroads at the top of the World Test Championship then they will need to start finding answers right through their side rather than continuing to rely on moments of individual brilliance.