Perhaps for the first time, England enters the World Cup as favourites to win. How Eoin Morgan’s team deal with the tag remains to be seen, but the leaps they have made in limited-overs cricket since crashing out of the 2015 World Cup is apparent to all. England have climbed to the top of the ICC rankings for ODI teams and have broken the record for the highest ODI total twice in recent times.
What has worked for England is the remodeling of the team to have fearless big hitters at the top of the order, and bowlers who can contribute substantially with the bat when needed.
Up against them in the opening match of the tournament is South Africa, who are said to be underdogs. However, it is this underdog status that could give South Africa the fearlessness they’ve lacked at times while encountering heartbreaks at multiple editions of the World Cup.
“The fact there has not been a lot of chat at this World Cup means there is less expectation, but in the team we think we can do well,” Hashim Amla was quoted as saying by ICC last week.
England’s resurgence under Morgan since the 2015 World Cup has been incredible. Thanks to Morgan’s example and determination, England believes it can smash any team into submission. No total seems out of reach. To England, a score of 300 is the bottom line.
The comfort of home and massive expectations are to be embraced, Morgan says, and they have been. The English team hasn’t lost a series of two matches or more at home in four years. They haven’t lost any series anywhere in more than two years.
Despite the lack of hype about them, South Africa’s recent ODI form has been stupendous. They did commendably in the two warm-up matches they played, against West Indies and Sri Lanka.
They whitewashed Sri Lanka 5-0 in the ODI series in South Africa in March this year. In January, they won an ODI series, also at home, against Pakistan 3-2. In November last year, they beat Australia 2-1 in an ODI series in Australia.
Star players have been cleared fit to play, including Morgan, who broke his left index finger on May 24. Morgan says he already knows who is starting, but he declined to reveal the team on Wednesday.
South Africa, meanwhile, will be without one of its best fast bowlers. Dale Steyn’s right shoulder injury flared again in April in the Indian Premier League and he isn’t ready in time for the start of the World Cup. He was picked with the expectation that he would recover, and South Africa believes he will be fit to play its third game on June 5 against India.
For England, all eyes will be on Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer. In the seven ODI innings he has played so far this year, Buttler has scored two centuries. He was also one of the cleanest hitters in the recently concluded IPL. Archer, the former West Indies Under-19 bowling allrounder who has qualified for England on shortened residency rules, has already been identified as an X-factor by Virat Kohli.
South Africa’s bowling department, despite Steyn’s absence, will be impressive. There are Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, and the retiring-but-menacing legspinner Imran Tahir.
The team’s batting prowess, however, is questionable. It relies on captain Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, and David Miller. Hashim Amla isn’t as feared as he was in his prime, but showed some form by hitting two half-centuries in the warmup matches.
Head-to-head in World Cups
England and South Africa have met six times in World Cups, with both teams having won thrice. England won the tie both the times the teams faced off in the 1992 World Cup.
South Africa convincingly got the better of England the next three times they met in the World Cup – by 78 runs in 1996, by 122 runs in 1999 and by 9 wickets in 2007. At the 2011 World Cup, the two sides were involved in a very low-scoring encounter in Chennai, with England winning by 6 runs after having put up a total of 171.
Coach Ottis Gibson has downplayed South Africa’s own need for a win in the tournament opener. His attitude is, if they win, they win, if they don’t, there’s another game on Sunday (against Bangladesh).
(With inputs from AP)