SERIES PREVIEW: ENGLAND VS SOUTH AFRICA, ODIs

Champions Trophy favourites take on No 1 ranked team

Preamble

With the Champions Trophy a little over a week away from starting – the ICC having mercifully decided that as they’d finally hit upon a tournament structure that works, they won’t cancel the whole thing after all – England complete their preparations with a three match series against South Africa, currently ranked number one in the world and like the home team, serious contenders for picking up the honours next month. Having learned little from the two matches against Ireland, where the visitors displayed ineptitude not seen since games on ‘Amateur’ difficulty on Brian Lara Cricket 2005, this will represent a serious test of the favourites tag festooned on Eoin Morgan’s men.

What could possibly go wrong?

The home team

Jonny Bairstow isn’t an especially happy ginger bunny at the moment. His season so far has run as follows; Fail to pick up an IPL deal, be mandated to miss a chunk of Yorkshire’s Championship fixtures at the behest of the ECB (while his team mates are over in India playing seemingly every other day), lose his role as back up keeper in the ODI team to Sam Billings, score a cumulative 82 runs off 59 balls against Ireland without being dismissed…and he’ll still get dropped from the team today. It’s definitely hard on him and there are plenty of teams he’d walk into as one of the star batsmen, but that’s a mark of where England’s batting line up is. That first choice top six of Jason Roy, Alex Hales, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler is impregnable. The captain would have probably the flimsiest case to make given his uneven returns over the last 18 months or so, but his position as leader of the team is rock solid and so there simply isn’t any room at the inn. There hasn’t been space to bring in outstanding young talent in the likes of Liam Livingstone and Daniel Bell-Drummond. Ben Duckett can’t get in the squad. Jonny will have to fume and turn an incredible shade of red in the Leeds sunshine instead.

Factor 9,000,000.

Stokes, Buttler and Chris Woakes are back in the fold after their time in the sub-continent (Stokes ended as one of the undoubted stars of the show, the other two had their moments without grabbing many headlines) and will come straight back into the team. It’s likely that Trevor Bayliss will return to his policy of picking both Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid which leaves two spots up for grabs between Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett, David Willey and Jake Ball. Willey struggled against Ireland as the new ball failed to swing; under those circumstances, his low 80s pace can become cannon fodder. He has generally shown a decent knack for taking early wickets which is absolutely crucial in modern ODI cricket but there’s just something which doesn’t wholly convince about him. His figures thus far suggest that he’s borderline unusable in overs 10-40. His batting is an irrelevance at this level – smashing Josh Cobb and Shiv Thakor around in domestic games is a world away from facing international quality bowling, and thus far in England colours he’s looked little more than an unreconstructed village slogger – and while the variety of a left arm option is welcome, it isn’t enough on its own. Otherwise Harry Gurney would still be in the team with his weird rictus grin. This could end up being a crucial audition for him. Wood is likely to play whenever available due to his raw pace and a combination of him as a strike bowler with Plunkett offering a reassuring battering ram, gloriously bearded control option could be the way forward.

Possible team: Jason Roy, Alex Hales, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan (c), Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler (wk), Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett, Mark Wood

The away team

Chokers. Bottlers. South Africa are never going to rid themselves of that tag until they get round to winning a major tournament (they did win the 1998 Wills Trophy, but given England’s squad for that jamboree included Matthew Fleming, Graham Lloyd and a 35 year old Jack Russell, I’m not sure everyone was taking it especially seriously). It’s probably an unfair tag; they tend to lose in the latter stages of tournaments unlike England’s glorious habit of crashing out in the group stages – I’m still not over 1999 – and so when they lose, it’s normally against a fellow top end team who would be expected to give them a very good game on their own merit. But still, for a nation that has produced so much incredible talent, their inability to seal the deal haunts them. Going into this tournament on a prolonged good run of form and facing conditions which should suit them, this would represent yet another good chance to break that hoodoo. Or they’ll mess it up in the semi-final again, whichever.

Totally choked on getting this target.

The top order of Quinton de Kock (absolutely ludicrous form for a while now – he averaged 57 through 2016 at a strike rate in excess of 100), Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers looks ominously strong. It’s a great shame for the game that AB has seemingly decided to give up on Test cricket to concentrate on schlepping around the world playing T20 and to turn up for South Africa whenever there’s a tournament on and if he’s to have that decision vindicated, this would be the time for him to produce the goods on the big stage. The frontline bowling is strong with the outstanding Kagiso Rabada set to take the reins of attack leader from the sadly crocked Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir on hand to produce the inevitable spell of 5-3-3-4 against our middle order, accompanied by a lap of the ground with every wicket. It’s the middle order which doesn’t look the strongest at this stage; JP Duminy can normally be relied upon for some comically soft dismissals and in 20 ODIs against England averages under 19 with a top score of 47. Farhaan Berhardien is the kind of player England would have picked for the 1998 Wills Trophy, David Miller tends to be more miss than hit, Chris Morris looks like Beaker from Sesame Street looks a notch or two short of genuine class with both bat and ball and Wayne Parnell has never lived up to the hype when he first broke onto the scene. Andile Phehlukwayo has made a promising start to his international career and may provide South Africa’s best hope of filling the all-rounder berth that they seem determined to craft.

Possible team: Quinton de Kock (wk), Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers (c), JP Duminy, David Miller, Andile Phehlukwayo, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir

Outlook

The weather seems to be set fair for all three fixtures and with predominantly flat decks produced for ODIs in this country nowadays, we should see a run-soaked series. Both teams bat deep and bat aggressively and England habitually score heavily while never really threatening to choke teams off with the ball under this regime. De Kock is likely to be the key man for the visitors as he has the ability to take a game away within the opening 15 overs. England will seek to finalise that bowling line-up and hope that Buttler can reignite his form after a quiet few months in the international game. Eoin Morgan to produce at least one seethe-inducing innings of 12 off 26 balls along the way.

REPORT: FIRST ODI: ENGLAND VS IRELAND, BRISTOL

Ireland: 126 all out (33.0 overs; Balbirnie 30, Joyce 23; Rashid 5-27, Root 2-9)

England: 127/3 (20.0 overs; Hales 55, Root 49*; Chase 3-44)

In a nutshell

An old fashioned ODI massacre as a massively outclassed Ireland team were beaten before the lunch interval.

In more words

It’s a reflection of how reactive the ICC can tend to be that the opportunity for Ireland in top level international cricket appears to have passed. Between 2007 and 2013 they were far and away the best Associate team, genuinely competing with those at the lower end of the ODI rankings, yet overtures to join the top table remained elusive. There is now seemingly a chance for them to join those echelons and eventually gain Test status…but that team has gone now. What we’re left with is the remnants of the golden days, now past their best and increasingly no longer playing in county cricket (with some of their erstwhile team mates now retired), and a smattering of players coming through who have yet to experience the necessary exposure to high class bowling in particular. Expansion of cricket across the world is an absolute necessity and in years to come the governing bodies should reflect on how they missed the boat with Irish cricket; especially when they come to consider how to progress with Afghanistan’s fledgling team.

ICC1
Or ban fans from drinking non-endorsed cola at ICC events, whichever’s easiest.

As for today, Ireland actually started reasonably brightly. David Willey failed to find any real swing with the new ball as is his normal method and as a consequence was expensive early on, Ed Joyce and Paul Stirling racking up an opening stack of 40 in decent time. From thereon in, it was one way traffic. Stirling was defeated by the extra pace of Mark Wood – looking sharp at over 90mph at points, we just have to hope his body can stand up to regular cricket – while Joyce swiftly followed him back to the pavilion after somehow missing a 78mph half volley from Willey that should really have been clipped straight to the square leg boundary. This appeared to be a pitch set up for pace bowling and accordingly England had picked four seamers, omitting Moeen Ali in the process; yet it was spin which did the damage. Or more accurately, lack of spin.

Croft1
Robert got very excited about the prospect of the non-turning delivery making a glorious comeback.

Will Porterfield clipped Joe Root to mid-off after a tortuous 13 off 45 balls and what followed was a procession largely to Adil Rashid. This was not a day when the Yorkshireman was ripping balls past the outside edge, more that the Irish batsmen failed to pick his variations and the googly was his main weapon, with both O’Brien brothers and Gary Wilson falling lbw to him. Tailenders Stuart Thompson and Tim “Meat Is” Murtagh perished near the end to give him his first ever five wicket haul in ODIs.

A meagre total of 126 was at least 150 shy of par and the only question was whether England would wrap matters up without the need for a full 45 minute break innings. Jason Roy fell in the first over – he will be disappointed to have missed out, especially having not had much playing time in the IPL, and especially when much like Joyce, he fell to a half volley on middle and leg – but Alex Hales (after some early luck) and Joe Root batted in their usual fashion to keep England at a run rate of around 7 an over to make the outcome a mere formality. Hales fell after one shot too many and allowed Jonny Bairstow to finish the job with his Headingley team mate. Game over by 2.45pm and inside 30 overs of the scheduled finish. Any team can have a bad day, but this looked a serious mismatch from the time that Ireland’s opening pair fell.

Players of the day

Rashid was as excellent as his figures suggested, adapting well to the conditions and recognising the fallibility of his opponents. Of course, the question remains as to whether he can truly bowl to the very best players of spin, and this will be tested in the Champions Trophy. But it augurs well that he bowled very little rubbish today and it is a good early season boost for him. As mentioned previously, Wood’s pace was very much up and it is that explosiveness which will be required (and for which he has been selected) when the tournament comes around. Root did, of course, look in total control while seeing the team home. On the Irish side, Peter Chase looked short of genuine class but did show enough heart to bowl eight overs off the reel and pick up three wickets.

Babushka
And at least this Chase won’t get replaced by the worst game show of all time. The Boyd Rankin of game shows, if you will.

Disappointments of the day

All of Stirling, Joyce and Andy Balbirnie will be devastated to have got starts on a blameless pitch and thrown it away. Balbirnie in particular was playing well and scoring fluently before playing a cut to a delivery which was never in the right area to do so from Jake Ball. Ireland’s fielding was slovenly at best which is disappointing and uncharacteristic of a John Bracewell team; Hales was dropped twice, most glaringly by Niall O’Brien behind the stumps from a regulation legside nick.

David Willey remains reliant on swing in this format and when there is none, as today, he can look highly innocuous. A left arm bowler is an asset in modern ODI cricket, but not if he’s sending down 81mph dreck onto the pads. Roy and captain Eoin Morgan both missed out with lax shots and there will not be the same margin for error against better opponents.

Morgan1
Captain Deadweight starting the season as he means to go on.

Looking forward

The second and final ODI of this mini-series is on Sunday at Lord’s and it is imperative that Ireland focus on producing an at least competitive display – the eyes of the cricketing world are on them because everyone remembers the near decade struggle of the Bangladesh team to get any kind of foothold in the game. Batterings that see the game completed four hours before the scheduled finish are no good for anyone.

Competition for places in that Champions Trophy XI for England remains high and it is likely that Moeen will return on Sunday, perhaps at the expense of Willey or Liam Plunkett. Every game counts.