England's Jofra Archer
England's Jofra Archer Image Credit: Reuters

Benoni, South Africa: An illness bug within the England squad has forced them to downgrade their match against South Africa A today from first-class status to a practice match in which more than 11 players can appear.

It is a significant blow to their preparations, and now means that they will not play any first-class cricket before the opening Test starting on Boxing Day.

Bowlers Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Jack Leach were absent from the opening warm-up match against an Invitation XI with a bug. These symptoms have worsened over recent days, with several other squad members affected.

Changing the first-class status of the match means that players can appear for a portion of the game - for instance, Archer and Broad bowling a few overs and then going off the field - to aid their preparations for the first Test. It would be a concern for England if both Archer and Broad appeared in the opening Test without any previous bowling.

Joe Denly, another first-choice Test player, has been afflicted by the bug, although he made 60 not out against the Invitation XI before falling ill. Two members of the coaching team have also been struck down.

Downgrading the game is a disappointment for Chris Silverwood, the head coach, who views tour matches as a chance to up the intensity before Tests. Under Trevor Bayliss, tour matches were treated as practice games, but Silverwood's view is that - just as before the 2010-11 Ashes - impressive performances can set the tone for the subsequent series.

The concerns about Archer and Broad make the return to fitness of James Anderson even more important. As the prospect of playing his 150th Test at Centurion looms into view, Anderson's desire to compete for England remains strong. "It's something I love and I still feel I've got something to offer, so that hunger and desire to get back is very much still there," he said. "That's part of the reason I worked so hard to get back and worked on my fitness, because I still want to do it."

Anderson arrived in South Africa at the start of the month to attend a fast-bowling camp. At the age of 37, over 17 years into his international career, Anderson knows that he must work even harder if he is to remain in peak condition.

"For me, it was just getting some more overs in and build up my rehab. I was building up confidence, too, to feel I could still step up the gas and bowl with a bit more freedom. It was really helpful to me and I feel acclimatised now. I haven't felt I needed to ease my way in, I've been able to hit the ground running, so that's good.

"Watching them on the sidelines was pretty difficult throughout the summer because you just want to be out there trying to enjoy it with them. I'm just hopeful I can get my fitness up to speed and bowling well enough to be picked for that first Test."

In the charming surroundings of Willowmoore Park, Benoni, Anderson returned to England colours in a game for the first time since August, when he limped out of the first Ashes Test after just four overs.

This time, Anderson managed 11 as all England's bowlers enjoyed a gentle introduction to the tour.

After a slightly wayward first spell, which leaked 30 runs from six overs, Anderson looked much more like his usual self in a five-over spell after lunch that yielded just seven runs and included his first wicket in an England shirt since February.

"It feels like a long time since I've played a competitive game, so to get out in the middle and get some overs under my belt was very pleasing," Anderson said. "There was a bit of rust there with the new ball, but that's to be expected having not played for four or five months. I'm just happy to be back out there."

The absence of Anderson was sorely felt in New Zealand, where England took just 21 wickets across two Tests at an eye-watering average cost of 58.6 runs apiece.