London: How to try and predict the level of violence England’s batsmen could visit on South Africa’s bowlers in the opening gambit of the 2019 World Cup at the Oval on Thursday? Here’s one way: England have made five of the 14 totals bigger than 350 in one-day internationals this year — including the only one above 400 — and their players have delivered seven of the highest 50 scores.
Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, who have scored three centuries in 14 innings between them in 2019, are England’s major threats. “The one thing you do know is that they’re going to be aggressive because that’s the way they’ve played for the last four years,” South Africa coach Ottis Gibson said on Tuesday. “So you can plan for that. They’ll play good shots but they’ll also give you opportunities to get them out. You’ve got to be brave and execute your plan. That’s what it comes down to.”
South Africa have made much of their quality attack, and their belief that it's the bowling rather than the batting that is going to be the bigger factor in the tournament. But they are also confident in their batting ability.
“If you look at the way we’ve played in the last 12 months, it has been a little bit more expansive than you would normally see a South African team play; probably not as expansive as England but we’ve gone out of our own bubble a bit and tried to be more positive and aggressive,” Gibson said.
It seems all questions over Hashim Amla’s form and mental state — his father is gravely ill — have been answered by the half-centuries he scored in South Africa’s warm-up matches against Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Friday and West Indies in Bristol on Sunday. Gibson was bullish on his team’s lynchpin: “Was there a debate? I didn’t know there was a debate. Hashim is Hashim. He’s played well. Of course, he had a little dip in form and he had a lot of other things going on that was occupying his mind. But he was selected, and he comes into the reckoning.”
The key confrontation will be between England’s batting line-up and South Africa’s attack. To stay competitive in that contest, South Africa will send some of the best bowlers in any team at the World Cup into the fray — Kagiso Rabada and leg spinner Imran Tahir, the top two wicket-takers at this year’s Indian Premier League, along with Lungi Ngidi.
But Dale Steyn won’t be there. “He’s not far away but he’s not ready yet,” Gibson said about the state of Steyn’s shoulder injury. “We think, with a six-week tournament, there’s no real need to force the issue just now. We know that he’s close and he’s getting closer every day, and we’ll give him as much time as we can to get ready. We’re hoping that, if not by Sunday (when South Africa play Bangladesh, also at the Oval), then by the time we play India (in Southampton on Wednesday). We think he’s going to be OK, so we’re not thinking of a replacement just yet.”
Chris Morris is the closest player South Africa have to a fully fit Steyn, but he was less than impressive in conceding 31 runs in four overs against Sri Lanka on Friday.
Dwaine Pretorius is a workmanlike seamer, but would likely be monstered by England’s batting juggernaut. England are also facing a poser over their third seamer. One of Liam Plunkett, Mark Wood and Tom Curran will bowl behind Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer. And they have a shoulder injury of their own to manage.
“Hopefully I’m fully fit, or verging on fully fit, and coming into the game I’ll be ready to go,” leg spinner Adil Rashid said on Tuesday.
“I’ve had a bit of wear and tear over the years. It does affect me if I’ve got that impingement or pain; the rotation can be a bit difficult and you may not get the revs you want.
“The drift, the dip, the googly is a bit harder to come by. But it’s just about managing it, getting the right treatment from the physio. I’m sure I’ll get through with a few pills and a few stretches. I’m ready to go for the whole tournament.”
Thursday’s match will only intensify the focus on Archer, whose selection in England’s squad was controversial. He was born and raised in Barbados and wasn’t living in England until after he turned 18, but the England Cricket Board changed the rules — shortening the qualification period from seven to three years — to hasten his eligibility for selection.
Gibson, twice previously England’s bowling coach, is also from Barbados. Inevitably, he was asked what Jofra would bring to England’s party.
“Did you ask ‘Trev’ [England coach Trevor Bayliss] that question? “What he brings? I don’t know what he brings. I’m not in there anymore. He’s fresh and he’s obviously talented and he’s got a lot of pace and he’s from Barbados, so I’m glad that they picked him.
“He’s a very good kid. I’ve known him from Barbados when he was a youngster growing up there. So I’m really pleased for him. He’s got a lot of talent, so he’s bringing that. He’s bringing pace; he bowls quickly. And he’s a matchwinner. So hopefully he won’t have much of a say in this game, but then he’ll have a really good tournament once this game is over.”
Thursday’s match has rightfully been billed as a watershed moment for the two teams. All the planning, some of it in progress for years, will be stress-tested for the first time.
“To play the hosts and the No. 1 team in the world is the best way to start because it gives us a real sense of where we are,” Gibson said.
But it was also vital to keep the bigger picture in mind. Victory on Thursday would represent major success, but it would be only one win.
“I heard somewhere that both my two very good friends [Stuart] Broad and [James] Anderson have said that England have to do something really bad not to win this World Cup,” Gibson said. “So, as far as they’re concerned, England have won it already. Our aim is to do our best. If that’s not good enough on Thursday, we have another game on Sunday and then another game on Wednesday. Our aim is to be in the tournament at the back end.”
And it all starts, not before time and not without hype, at The Oval on Thursday.
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