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England in South Africa: Who makes the XI?

Sports Mole picks the 11 players that should take to the field for England's first Test match away in South Africa later this month.

Having lost the recent three-Test series 2-0 to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, English spirits have been lifted by victories over the Asian nation in both the one-day and Twenty20 formats of the game.

Now, though, attention will have already switched to the four Tests against South Africa, which get underway in Durban on Boxing Day.

A 16-man squad was announced for the tour last month, with the main talking point being the omission of veteran batsman Ian Bell, while Nick Compton and Gary Ballance both received recalls.

Here, Sports Mole picks the 11 England players that we believe should take to the Sahara Stadium Kingsmead pitch for the opening encounter.

1. Alastair Cook (C)

Alastair Cook celebrates his century on day three of the first Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi on October 15, 2015© Getty Images

He may have been under intense pressure a few months ago, but having been freed from his limited-overs responsibilities, Cook is once again a colossus at the top of the order. The skipper had a modest tour of South Africa in 2009-10 when he averaged 41, but he is much more of a complete batsman nowadays. If England are to come through this tough assignment with a positive result, the left-hander is bound to have played a big role.

Tests: 122 Runs scored: 9,780

2. Alex Hales

England batsman Alex Hales leaves the field after his 94 during the 2nd NatWest series T20 match between England and Australia at Emirates Durham on August 31, 2013© Getty Images

The Nottinghamshire man really should have been given the chance to prove his credentials at Test level against Pakistan instead of being thrown into the lion's den against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. South Africa, with their bowling attack, are not ideal opposition to make your Test debut against, but Hales does at least have the necessary ball-striking and counter-attacking capabilities to go in full of confidence. The right-handed 26-year-old will be Cook's eighth different opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012.

Tests: 0 Runs scored: N/A

3. Joe Root

Joe Root of England celebrates reaching his century during day three of the 2nd Test match between West Indies and England at the National Cricket Stadium in St George's on April 23, 2015 © Getty Images

There is very little that can be written in praise of the Yorkshireman that has not already been scribed. Named Man of the Series as England defeated Australia 3-2 to win The Ashes during the summer, Root has also broken the record for most runs scored in a calendar year by an England player. With Bell dropped, the 24-year-old should find slotting in at number three no trouble. After all, he is the world's number one Test batsman, although strangely all of this was not enough to earn him a place on the shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award.

Tests: 35 Runs scored: 3,020

4. James Taylor

James Taylor of England celebrates his century during the 3rd Royal London One-Day International match between England and Australia at Old Trafford on September 8, 2015© Getty Images

Over three years on from his Test debut, Taylor was in major danger of becoming yesterday's man. A hefty series defeat by the South Africans, the resignation of Strauss as captain and those critical text messages from Kevin Pietersen in 2012 saw the 25-year-old descend into the international wilderness. To his credit, Taylor has continued to score runs for Nottinghamshire since then and he was finally rewarded with a call-up for the UAE tour, during which he scored an impressive 76 in the final Test. His grittiness could prove to be a key characteristic against South Africa's pacemen.

Tests: 3 Runs scored: 126

5. Jonny Bairstow

Jonny Bairstow bats for England against Australia at Lord's on July 18, 2013.© Getty Images

A bit like Taylor, Bairstow's Test career had stalled somewhat, but five quickfire County Championship centuries propelled him back into the England team midway through The Ashes. He scored an impressive 74 at Trent Bridge and then weighed in with a 46 and a 43 against Pakistan. While they may not be scores that take the breath away, Bairstow's displays have indicated that a big knock is not too far away. He makes this team solely as a batsman, though, owing to the fact that there are plenty of enhancements to be made with the gloves.

Tests: 20 Runs scored: 845

6. Ben Stokes

Englands Ben Stokes celebrates reaching his century during play on the fourth day of the first cricket Test match between England and New Zealand at Lord's cricket ground in London on May 24, 2015© Getty Images

A fiery all-rounder that is capable of putting runs on the board at a rapid rate and snaring an important wicket or two, England will be desperate for Stokes to be fit come December 26. The 24-year-old sustained what appeared to be a serious-looking shoulder injury during the final Test against Pakistan, although he was able to bat. His playing style does sometimes mean that he will lose his wicket cheaply, but in the ever-changing face of Test cricket, quick run-scorers are a must. The 101 off 92 balls that he scored against New Zealand at Lord's in the summer shows that he is the man to fill that role.

Tests: 19 Runs scored: 972 Wickets: 45

7. Jos Buttler (WK)

England's Jos Buttler (R) celebrates scoring his century during the first one-day international (ODI) cricket match between England and New Zealand at Edgbaston cricket ground, in Birmingham, central England on June 9, 2015© Getty Images

After making an impressive start to life as a Test cricketer, Buttler's form has tailed off badly. Once an instinct player, the 25-year-old currently comes across as a someone that is thinking things through too much. In his last 12 Test appearances, the wicketkeeper's top score is 42, while he has been dismissed for a duck or single figures on six occasions during that time. Unsurprisingly he was dropped in favour of Bairstow towards the end of the Pakistan series, but his unbeaten 49 and 116 in the ODIs must have done Buttler's confidence the world of good. His glove work has also improved tenfold, so it is worth showing some persistence.

Tests: 15 Runs scored: 630

8. Moeen Ali

Moeen Ali in action for England on day two of the first Test of The Ashes on July 9, 2015© Getty Images

Ali was moved to the top of the order against Pakistan, but from early on that was a botched experiment. He may see himself as a top-order batsman, but operating there at Test level is much different to County Championship cricket. Number eight may be too low as far as the 28-year-old is concerned, but he was particularly useful in that position during the summer. The 293 runs that he posted during The Ashes proved to be especially crucial. He may be an inconsistent spin-bowler, but on the hard pitches in South Africa, it should not be a component that England are overly reliant on.

Tests: 19 Runs scored: 833 Wickets: 54

9. Stuart Broad

Stuart Broad celebrates dismissing Chris Rogers on day four of the First Test of The Ashes on July 11, 2015© Getty Images

When Broad retires, he will look back on 2015 as a stellar year. Seemingly free from injuries, the 29-year-old has probably been the pick of the England bowlers this year, having taken more wickets than anyone else (51). His 8-15 against the Aussies at Trent Bridge will go down in history as one the finest ever bowling spells, while his pace and accuracy against Pakistan went largely unrewarded by weight of wickets. Not only that, he seems to have rediscovered some form with the bat.

Tests: 87 Wickets: 315

10. Steven Finn

Steven Finn celebrates dismissing Steve Smith on day one of the Third Test of The Ashes on July 29, 2015© Getty Images

The 26-year-old's inclusion is likely to be a surprise given that his name was not among the 16 picked to travel to South Africa. However, the foot complaint that ruled him out is said to have healed well and Finn is already believed to be bowling in the nets. When asked recently by The Sun if the 'Watford Wall' could still be included in the team on Boxing Day if he can prove his fitness, coach Trevor Bayliss replied: "Yes." He made a triumphant return to Test cricket following a two-year exile with a six-wicket haul against Australia at Edgbaston and was also in fine form before injury struck.

Tests: 26 Wickets: 102

11. James Anderson

James Anderson celebrates the wicket of Mitchell Marsh during day one of the third Ashes Test between England and Australia at Edgbaston on July 29, 2015© Getty Images

Forty-six wickets at an average of 22.65 - it does not get much better than that. Those are the 2015 figures of Anderson, who somehow seems to be improving as he enters his twilight years. Already England's leading wicket-taker of all time with 426 to his name, the 33-year-old will fancy his chances of improving on that tally significantly on those South African pitches. His battle with Steyn could be one of the best and most important of the series.

Tests: 110 Wickets: 426

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