Cricket

Chris Woakes will play for England against South Africa.

Alastair Cook: Chris Woakes and Alex Hales are ready for huge Test

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England captain Alastair Cook believes Chris Woakes and Alex Hales are primed and ready for the biggest game of their careers.

The Boxing Day Test in Durban, against a South African side ranked number one in the world, is a marquee match for any player - even one of Cook's experience.

But for Hales, who will make his Test debut at the top of the order, and Woakes, returning after 18 months as James Anderson's stand-in, it is both a major challenge and a brilliant chance.

Woakes has played four Tests and although his record is modest, England have no doubt he is the man to replace their leading wicket-taker, who remains stricken with a calf strain.

"Chris is going to play, anyone who's seen practice over the 24 hours would have seen that we've concentrated mainly on our XI so it's no surprise," said Cook, fulfilling his usual press duties not only on Christmas morning but also his 31st birthday.

"He's been around the side for a while and what an opportunity it is for him to play.

"He's ready to go now, he's learned his trade, and it's about him delivering on the big stage for England, which he can do.

"Woakesy's desperate to be given opportunities, it's been quite hard in one sense for him to get in the side with how fit Jimmy and Stuart Broad have been and how long they've been around, but this is a great opportunity and he's a really good cricketer."

Hales also faces quite the welcome to Test cricket against world-class new-ball bowlers Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

He is the eighth batsman to partner Cook at opener since Andrew Strauss' retirement, and England dearly hope the Nottinghamshire man is ready to put an end to that merry-go-round.

Hales made his name in the game as a hard-hitting one-day batsman and is the only player to score T20 and ODI hundreds for the country.

Contrarily, he has been out leaving the ball twice in three innings on tour, and Cook encouraged him not to fall into the trap of remodelling his methods too drastically between formats.

"It's absolutely vital he plays the way he plays for Nottinghamshire," advised the skipper.

"One of the biggest mistakes you can do as an international player is to think you have to play a different way. The reason he got selected was for the way he plays and the big hundreds when he gets in.

"Certainly at the start of last year that made everyone sit up and take notice of him.

"You can't change the way he plays, he's just got to be true to himself and that will be good enough. Always at the top of the order against the new ball and world-class attacks, you're going to have low scores, so it's about how you handle that and, when you're in, make sure you cash-in and go big to compensate."

While the Proteas do appear vulnerable, coming off the back of a morale-sapping tour of India and with serious concerns over their top six, Cook is happy for the hosts to go in as favourites.

Not only does that reflect their status on top of the ICC rankings and their home advantage, it also allows the tourists to show their mongrel side.

"There's a reason why they're the number one side in the world and that's because of their results at home over a long period of time," he said.

"Always beware a wounded animal, and all that stuff, but it's just talk isn't it? These guys are ready to test themselves against the best in their back yard.

"This side like being the under dogs and like throwing a few punches."

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