Mon, 13 Jul 2020

CWC: Maybe Proteas' opener ISN'T date from hell?

20 May 2019, 22:10 GMT+10

Cape Town - South Africa's Cricket World Cup 2019 opening fixture, at immediate glance on paper, just looks increasingly like the worst date it could possibly be ... representing significant potential for a back-foot start.

They will run smack-bang at The Oval next Thursday (May 30) into a tournament-hosting England side who have just wrapped up their one-day international build-up by thrashing pretty decent Pakistan, the ICC Champions Trophy holders, 4-0 in a home bilateral series.

With only the non-ODI-status, warm-up fixtures to go now for both protagonists in the glamour opening CWC match in London, England will probably feel more ship-shape than the Proteas as things stand.

Their opponents and now clear underdogs for the tussle last played ODIs of their own more than two months ago, clean-sweeping an unsatisfactorily weak Sri Lankan outfit 5-0 on our soil, having earlier beaten Pakistan (3-2) altogether less comfortably than England have done.

Supposedly a pivotal string to their bow, the Proteas' seam department is also looking - worryingly - dangerously short of optimal fitness and sharpness, given the ongoing race against time to get all of trump cards Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi firing on all cylinders after varying injury woes.

One or two of them may well not be at 100 percent yet when next Thursday comes around, potentially leaving major decisions around whether to select them at all, or trust them to perform despite rustiness or any lingering impediment.

By beating Pakistan, the globally No 1-ranked English extended their run of home bilateral series triumphs to eight in a row; their last setback was as far back as 2015 against Australia, who pipped them 3-2.

Certainly this England team, under Eoin Morgan, is unrecognisable in virtually all the right ways from their line-up the last time they hosted the World Cup - 20 years ago in 1999.

Then, their ODI set-up was considered as lagging behind most of the rest of the major powers in several respects, a situation highlighted by the fact that they entered CWC '99 not having won any of six leadup tournaments in the format - either bilateral or multi-national - that they'd competed in.

South Africa, by contrast, were a well-oiled machine under Hansie Cronje (and coach Bob Woolmer), the defending Champions Trophy title-holders and also boasting last bilateral success against England on their pitches: the 1998 Texaco Trophy (2-1).

Faf du Plessis's current troops don't have that particular luxury, as they were beaten 2-1 in the last English-staged bilateral series in 2017, immediately ahead of the most recent Champions Trophy.

England were often accused, in that pre-2000 period and even a bit after it, of not placing enough emphasis on the different needs of limited-overs cricket, and their ODI side - not always marked by the nimblest of athletes, either - dubiously looked too close to their Test line-up.

Although it was scheduled on that occasion with the tournament already in fuller swing, South Africa tackled the CWC hosts also at The Oval, and duly whipped Alec Stewart's outfit by 122 runs.

Helped by a century opening partnership from Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten, SA posted 225 for seven (a considerably better total then that it looks nowadays, of course) and then routed England for 103, Allan "White Lightning" Donald bagging four for 17.

England had few of the glittering array of boundary-clearers - and true X-factor all-rounders - they possess in 2019, with someone like a rookie Andrew Flintoff below best physical condition and well short of the influential, charismatic general cricketer he would develop into on the international stage.

Whereas the South African marched onward to a classic, though eventually ill-fated semi-final against eventual champions Australia at Edgbaston, England were bundled out ahead of the (more extended-format, then) knockout phase.

Having attended much of that World Cup in a working capacity, I can confirm that it almost immediately fizzled badly for enthusiasm among the home public upon England's early exit - that in a country where soccer so consistently rules the roost anyway for visibility in the media and talk on street corners.

This time, in stark contrast, England quite genuinely, more excitedly "expects" ... which will also, very shortly, put Morgan and company under more intense forms of background pressure they haven't yet had to negotiate, really.

Bear in mind that the mantle of tournament favourites (though there may be some Indian dissent on that score) is something they have seldom carried before - England have also not yet won the World Cup, albeit that that simply places them in the same boat as the Proteas.

Is it just possible, too, that the hosts are atop some sort of peak, meaning that the only way at some near-inevitable point will be down?

The Proteas, hyped to significantly stronger levels at prior World Cups, are more broadly deemed part of the workmanlike peloton, if you like, this time.

That won't be the worst thing to take into the tournament's particularly keenly-eyed first game: knowledge that they will be considered to have a puncher's chance, rather than be fancied to prevail against the "England juggernaut".

Winning would be a marvellous bonus, a sublime kick-start to Du Plessis and his men.

Defeat? Well, it would pretty much be "expected" - though I don't deny a notably competitive showing at worst would be a handy mental tonic - and the Proteas be able to dust off the result and move on to eight further round-robin fixtures knowing that the biggest stinker on paper for any team at CWC 2019 is already behind them.

Besides, a fast regroup opportunity would lurk brightly on their radar, as they play Bangladesh three days later.

Perhaps you differ, but the more I think about it the less I believe England in game one - as opposed to locking horns with them at an advanced stage - will be the worst thing for South Africa.

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