A crude way of putting it would be to say that the World Cup 2019 opened with a contest between the quadrennial chokers versus the perennial no-hopers. A more accurate way, given how the two teams have morphed in the four years since the last Cup, is to say that the contest was between the always-underdogs turned favourites versus the always-favoured side turned underdogs.
The England Innings
“Protean”, the dictionary says, means one with the ability to change frequently, to do many things.
Faf du Plessis produced an early example of protean versatility when, after winning the toss and inserting England at the Kennington Oval, where the temperature at take-off was 19 degrees Celsius and the surface was fresh, he gave Imran Tahir the opening over.
It was designed for Jason Roy, who however took the easy option and got off strike with a single first ball. Ironically Johnny Bairstow, a good player of spin, defended with hard hands at a top spinner on length, that gripped and deviated off line just enough to force the nick-off.
‘High-handed’ means using power or authority without considering the feelings of others. Roy is a high-handed batsman, figuratively and literally: he plays with very high hands into the shot to produce his power. His style of play is high-risk and here, he edged past the slips on a couple of occasions, but survived and thrived.
Joe Root is the antithesis: a walking batting manual, calm, unflustered; he persuades, rather than powers, the ball to go where he wills. The combination of Roy’s bludgeon and Root’s scalpel eased England back into the game, even if not at the frenetic pace the hosts are used to. The 50 came in the 9th over, the 100 in the 17th. And with perfect symmetry, both batsmen reached 50 in that over, Roy off 51 deliveries and Root off 56.
In the space of four deliveries, South Africa fought back as Roy, first, mis-hooked to deep mid-off. Three balls later, Rabada produced one around the fifth stump line on full length – a Root weak zone which the SA pacers hadn’t exploited enough earlier – and the hard outside edge of the attempted drive found JP Duminy at point.
Eoin Morgan is widely credited with the strategy that converted England from perennial laughing stock to world number one, and his mantra is simple: When in doubt, go hard; when in trouble, go harder.
Here he walked that talk, best exemplified in a Lungi Ngidi over (the 26th), when he shimmied down the track to loft the pacy Protea over long off for six; the next ball was predictably the bouncer and Morgan, unlike Roy, did not overhit; he merely guided the hook and used the bowler’s pace to earn a six over fine leg.
Morgan’s fluid form allowed Stokes, who at the 31 over mark was still searching for his misplaced timing (22 off 28 at that stage) to bat in the captain’s slipstream till he found his own timing; when he did, he took to Markram in the 32nd over with a bludgeoned four followed by a slog-swept six. And Stokes was just in time to find form for Morgan, shortly after reaching 50, lofted a drive off Tahir for Markram – arguably the best fielder in this outfit – to dive forward at long on to hold.
Heading into the death, with the score 235/4 after 40, the scorecard points to the key to the England innings. At that point, four England batsmen had crossed 50 – Roy, Root, Morgan and Stokes. Two of them – Root and Morgan – weren’t allowed to lift their strike rate to plus-100; a third, Roy, was taken out just when he was looking to launch.
The way to curb a side that makes a habit of 350-plus totals is to take wickets. And that is what the Proteas did, with the slower ball as the murder weapon.
Jos Buttler, the feared finisher, dragged one of those on; Moeen Ali mowed one to du Plessis at cow corner; Woakes smacked one to du Plessis at long on and Ben Stokes, visibly frustrated by deliveries that gave him no pace to work with, reverse-pulled one to Hashim Amla at short third man. England ended on 311/8 – a winning total five years ago, but just around par in 2019.
Proteas skipper du Plessis won the first half. The use of Tahir first up was the obvious sign of a captain thinking ahead; what was less noticed but equally important was how, whenever wickets fell and England had to rebuild, the skipper was quick to use his lesser bowlers – Pretorious, Duminy and Markram between them bowled 12 overs for just 72 runs. This helped save big overs for the finish, with the result that in the final five overs, an England looking to explode had to face three overs of Rabada and one of Ngidi.
The South African Innings
The 5th ball of his second over slammed into Hashim Amla’s grille and forced him off the field for extensive medical testing. It was a 145k scorcher, the batsman’s reaction time was 0.47th of a second. To get an idea of what that means: The way you count seconds is to say ‘one rhinoceros – two rhinoceros – ‘ and so on. Each iteration is one second. If you started when Archer released the ball, you couldn’t have even said ‘one’, forget about rhinoceros, before the ball hit you.
The fourth ball of his fourth over was quick, and lifted off length. Aiden Markram, attempting to force off the back foot, found the bounce too much and edged to Root at first slip. The third ball of his fifth over was a bouncer that erupted off the deck at 149k – du Plessis, a superb player of the pull, was beaten for pace and bounce and holed out to long on. By the end of 10 overs, he had single-handedly reduced England to 44/2 with another major player off injured. By the time he ended his first spell – 5-0-20-2 – he had pushed the Proteas back to the wall and damn nearly through it. And 20 of his 30 deliveries were not scored off.
And to think that when the England selectors first sat down to pick the England squad, they had no slot to offer 24 year old Jofra Archer who had, with pace like fire, caught the eye in the colours of the West Indies Under-19s, the Hobart Hurricanes, Quetta Gladiators and Rajasthan Royals.
With bowling partner Chris Woakes, Archer introduced a different dimension to England’s cricket. The two new ball bowlers combined disciplined lines, hard lengths and searing pace, all of this backed by unrelenting fielding within the ring.
It was still achievable – 268 off 240 deliveries, and it seemed as if de Kock had sussed the game out: It needed one batsman to take the game deep, and he was it. For ally, he had Rassie van der Dussen, an oddity who, at age 30, was playing just his 9th ODI. The two raised a 50 run partnership off 57 deliveries, and the chase seemed on track when South Africa had one of those collective brain fades that saw SA, in the space of 54 deliveries, lose four for 38 runs.
It started with de Kock trying, foolishly, to heave a Liam Plunkett delivery over fine leg – the longest boundary in the field. JP Duminy tried an extravagant lofted off drive off Moeen Ali and was caught; three balls later, a stuttering attempt at a second run saw Pretorious out of his ground.
And of course, Archer had to be involved -- back for his second spell in the 32nd over, he produced yet another furiously quick, sharp bouncer that forced van der Dussen, who had in the previous over gotten to his fifth fifty in nine ODIs, into a mis-hook that went nowhere. Ben Stokes ended Phehlukwayo’s little cameo with a replica of the Keiron Pollard “catch of the season” in the recent IPL. Then we watched Hashim Amla, back after multiple neurological checks, and the tail go through the motions, and then we all went home – England with two points to its name earned via a clinical 104 run victory.
Here is one final, ironic, detail: Remember what the pundits said? That this would be a game of South Africa’s bowling versus England’s batting? Barring Pehlukhwayo, all frontline South African bowlers went for more than 6 RPO. Against that, only Moeen Ali went at 6-plus RPO for England.
After the early wickets of Markram and du Plessis, de Kock was holding the Proteas’ innings together until the 23rd over when he fell to Plunkett.
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