England`s players get a last chance to book their places for the first test on Boxing Day when they begin a final warm-up match against South Africa A in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday.
Alex Hales, Gary Ballance, Nick Compton, Steven Finn and Mark Footitt will be under especially close scrutiny if they are picked for the three-day game. England face much tougher opposition than the Invitation XI who offered them their first look at local conditions in a drawn encounter at Potchefstroom this week. Coach Trevor Bayliss has already said Hales is likely to open the batting with captain Alastair Cook in the first test in Durban.
However, Bayliss will be concerned Hales looked short of confidence and scored a total of 16 runs in two innings against the Invitation XI. Hales is set to make his test debut after impressing in limited-overs internationals but another failure might see England reconsider their options. Bayliss must also decide between Ballance and Compton for the number three slot against South Africa in Durban, and on an extra seamer.
Compton scored a half-century in the first innings in Potchefstroom but Ballance batted only in the second, making 25. Footitt missed out on a chance to shine when the Invitation XI`s second innings was curtailed by bad weather. The 30-year-old newcomer was erratic as he took two for 51 in 12 overs in the first innings and received some advice from bowling coach Otis Gibson later.
"He`s impressed the selectors, that`s why he got picked, so the best thing he can do now is relax in this environment because that`s the way for him to produce his best," Gibson told reporters. England may prefer Finn, a late addition to the squad, to Footitt. Finn was forced out of the test series against Pakistan in October after injuring his left foot.
"He hasn`t played a game but, given the facilities here, he has done a lot of good stuff in the nets and put himself right in the frame," Gibson said of Finn.