Cricket

England captain Alastair Cook: Lots of positions up for grabs

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Captain Alastair Cook does not yet know England's best team to take on South Africa but is excited about the process of finding out.

England touched down on Friday and began their tour with a light Saturday morning net session at Potchestfroom's Senwes Park.

Uncapped duo Alex Hales and Mark Footitt were present for the drills along with recalled batsmen Nick Compton and Gary Ballance, who each have an eye on the number three slot vacated by the absence of Ian Bell.

Ben Stokes was also on hand, bowling once again after his recent shoulder injury.

The exchanges were gentle, more a case of shaking off travel-related cobwebs than anything else, but that will not be the case for long.

The ante is sure to be ratcheted up in the days ahead as a relatively inexperienced group of players jockey for their place in the pecking order.

And that is the kind of competitive edge a captain likes to see.

"We don't know our best XI quite yet," a candid Cook said.

"That probably is an indication of where we are as a side in terms of the inconsistency. There's a lot of things up for grabs and a lot of people who can make a name for themselves on this tour.

"We are trying to find the best combination of best players and for people to nail down places and become automatic selections. There's a lot to play for internally in the next 10 days for the lads and that normally means the net sessions after this will be fairly intense because everybody will be trying to prove a point."

England appear to have answered two selection posers already, with head coach Trevor Bayliss reiterating Hales' claims on becoming Cook's eighth opening partner since Andrew Strauss' retirement and also inking Jonny Bairstow in to keep the gloves.

The Yorkshireman replaced the out-of-sorts Jos Buttler for the last Test against Pakistan in Sharjah, only for the latter to find his form in spectacular fashion with England's fastest one-day century in the one-day series.

Bayliss said: "I think Halesy has been with the squad for the last couple of series without getting a game. He's now the only other opener in the squad at this stage and I very much doubt whether anyone else would take that spot.

"I think he deserves his opportunity at the top of the order to try and make that spot his own.

"At this stage Jonny Bairstow is the incumbent wicketkeeper and hasn't done a lot wrong so I would envisage he will be starting (the series)."

That leaves two choices to make: Compton or Ballance at three and one from Footitt, Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes to complete the bowling attack.

Both Compton and Ballance can expect a chance in the two warm-up games that precede the first Test on Boxing Day, while Woakes' batting, Jordan's fielding and Footitt's novelty as a left-armer distinguish the seamers.

Of the latter, Bayliss said: "He's got a little bit of pace and being left-handed that's something different. He swings the ball too, so if anyone can bowl with decent pace and swing the ball he can cause problems. This tour could a big one for him."

England are currently billeted in a dedicated training complex that was first used by the Spanish football team ahead of their victorious 2010 World Cup campaign.

Each room is adorned with a plaque in honour of its first guest and, while Fernando Torres' room is occupied by the ECB press officer, Cook is more than happy to have inherited the quarters of Barcelona star Andres Iniesta.

"He's probably quite similar to the way I play football, a real midfield dynamo, never gives the ball away, pacy up and down," said a smiling Cook.

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