Some of the pre-match hype turned out to be unfounded as the South Africa-England game was not a humdinger and a score over 350 proved not to be a given, but the opening game of the 2019 World Cup at The Oval yesterday did provide early vindication of one forecast: hosts England may well be the team to match in this edition of cricket’s mega event.
They comfortably outclassed a strong South African unit by 104 runs, to the utter delight of a capacity and partisan crowd at south London’s iconic venue. Barring a sharp drop in form, the crowd support that the home team are likely to get will serve as a strong wind beneath their wings over the next month and a half.
England did not pile on 350-plus after South Africa chose to field first at the toss, but with four half-centuries against a well-drilled Proteas attack, they scored 311 for eight, with Ben Stokes’s 79-ball 89 forming the backbone. While there were doubts over England’s bowling prowess, the advent of newly-eligible-for-selection Barbados fast bowler Jofra Archer has completed the picture. The right-arm speedster took three for 27 in seven overs, aside from putting South African mainstay Hashim Amla out of commission with a bouncer that clanged the helmet grille in the fourth over.
The opener retired hurt and only came back at the fall of Rassie van der Dussen -- who was late on an Archer bouncer and was caught at mid on for 50 -- by which time, with the score on 161 for six in the 32nd over, the game was already beyond South Africa. Liam Plunkett got rid of Amla with a bouncer that the right-hander edged to the keeper and Stokes completed a player-of-the match performance by dismissing Kagiso Rabada and last man Imran Tahir as South Africa folded for 207 in 39.5 overs.
It was not just with the bat and ball that Stokes impressed -- he also completed what will surely be a strong contender for catch of the tournament when he caught what would have a certain six in a reverse-cupped right hand, leaping while running backwards at the midwicket boundary, to send back Andile Phelukwayo off Adil Rashid.
The match also held some lessons for Bangladesh, who will open their World Cup campaign against South Africa at the same venue next Sunday. It was only England’s brilliance and the confidence they have in their batting ability throughout the lineup that they continued their inexorable march towards 300 despite South Africa bowling well and landing some blows, such as getting half-centurions Jason Roy and Joe Root out in successive overs after a 110-run second-wicket stand. South Africa could not match that. Although they kept up somewhat with the asking run rate, they lost too many wickets in the bargain.
The match suggested that The Oval’s wicket is one where bowling teams can have joy if they bowl as a unit. Moreover, it did take spin and England off-spinner Moeen Ali, despite conceding more than six an over, did have the spin-wary South Africans in two minds as some balls turned and some went straight through, well within the wheelhouse of Bangladesh’s specialist spinners Shakib Al Hasan and Mehedi Hasan Miraz. Bangladesh of course do not have specialist leg-spinners like South Africa’s Imran Tahir and England’s Rashid -- both of whom enjoyed more assistance from the surface than Ali -- but Mehedi and Shakib would be fancying their chances on this surface, if not to take wickets, then to stifle the runs.
Back to yesterday’s match, it started with Tahir dismissing opener Jonny Bairstow with the second ball of the World Cup. That did not slow Roy or Root, as they threw their bats at anything loose and made full use of the fielding restrictions in the Powerplay, which ended with England 60 for one, despite Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Dwaine Pretorius at times testing the batsmen with pace and movement. Phehlukwayo and Rabada sent Roy and Root back in the 19th and 20th overs respectively, but that set the stage for skipper Eoin Morgan and Stokes to carry on in ruthless fashion, which they did in a 106-run fourth-wicket stand until Morgan holed out in the 37th over off Tahir for a 60-ball 57. Stokes, then on 51, took up the mantle and built mini partnerships with Jos Buttler, Ali and Chris Woakes before being caught at backward point off Ngidi in the penultimate over.
There was to be no big, signature flourish from England in the end, but on the wicket and on the day, they turned out to have thoroughly outmatched South Africa.