In an act of typically perverse scheduling, the limited-overs leg of England’s tour of South Africa includes five ODIs and just two T20Is, despite the fact that the World Twenty20 is looming in barely a month’s time, and both sides would doubtless benefit from a bit more sprint training in the intervening weeks.
Nevertheless, such is the cross-over between the shortened formats in this day and age that the 50-over showdowns, which get underway in Bloemfontein tomorrow, still retain a relevance to both teams. If South Africa’s imperative is to cultivate that winning feeling after a chastening Test series, then England want only to carry on where they left off in a riotous finish to their tour of the UAE before Christmas.
Eoin Morgan’s England are an unrecognisable outfit from the one-paced shambles that bombed out of the World Cup in Australia almost exactly 12 months ago. They bat without fear, they field like panthers and their bowlers – if still a touch raw in the post-Anderson and Broad era (albeit that the latter has been drafted back into the squad after a glut of injuries) – have shown promise that augurs well for the challenges to come.
No-one would pretend that England are a finished product, but with Andrew Strauss, the ECB’s new director of cricket, preaching a more open-minded attitude to white-ball cricket, their squad has a focus that has been lacking in one-day cricket almost since the dawn of the format. Adil Rashid and David Willey even arrive in South Africa with their horizons broadened by successful stints in Australia’s Big Bash, which would have been an unthinkably progressive move in England’s not-at-all-distant past.
Whether England are yet good enough to beat South Africa on home soil is a moot point, however. South Africa’s recent tour of India was a disaster in almost every facet, yet they still proved strong enough to muscle their way to a 3-2 ODI victory. This time last year, AB de Villiers was slamming a 31-ball century to trounce West Indies at Johannesburg, and after ducks in each of his last three Test innings, the only way for South Africa’s captain, surely, is up.
Alex Hales endured a torrid Test baptism in the recent series against South Africa. His technique and temperament received equally searching examinations and both were found wanting, as he struggled to 136 runs at 17.00 in four matches. However, a return to the shorter formats may be just what his game needs – a chance to see ball, hit ball, and worry rather less about the consequences of the wrong shot at the wrong time. The concern, however, may be the knock-on effect of his struggles on the tour so far. As his opening partner, Jason Roy, told last week, confidence is everything for a one-day opening batsman. Hales hasn’t displayed much of that in recent times.
Hashim Amla’s stunning return to form in the latter stages of the Test series was a reminder of how quickly a change of scene or circumstances can transform a player’s fortunes. Amla’s match-saving double century in Cape Town was made possible by the decision he had made earlier in the match, that the time was right to offload the burden of captaincy, and he confirmed the wisdom of that move with twin scores of 109 and 96 to set up a consolation win at Centurion. His task is now to translate that free-spirited strokeplay to the top of the one-day order. But, to judge by the serenity of his cover-driving in recent days, he’s perfectly poised to make any start count.
Marchant de Lange is a strong bet to add to his tally of three ODI caps as South Africa look to cover the gap in their fast-bowling ranks amid the long-term absences of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott. Although there are concerns about Kagiso Rabada’s workload following his Test heroics, he seems likely to be given the chance to start the series, while Imran Tahir overlooked through the Test series after struggling to make an impression on the tour of India is back in the frame as the first-choice spinner.
South Africa (probable) 1 Hashim Amla, 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 David Miller, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Farhaan Behardien, 8 Chris Morris/David Wiese, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Morne Morkel/Marchant de Lange, 11 Imran Tahir
Roy is a major doubt after suffering a back spasm during training on Monday. His place at the top of the order is likely to be filled by Moeen Ali, which is not the worst rejig imaginable given that Ben Stokes’ availability after injury in the UAE would otherwise create a logjam of stroke-makers in the lower-middle order. Adil Rashid, flushed with confidence after a breakthrough winter in the Big Bash, may be given the chance to take that form straight into the 50-over format.
England (probable) 1 Moeen Ali, 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 James Taylor, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 David Willey, 11 Reece Topley