Champions Trophy favourites take on No 1 ranked team
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.
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.
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.
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
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.