At the moment, England are half-way through their innings in the first ODI against South Africa. Usually, it is prudent to wait until the end of a game to make judgments about a team's performance. In this case, however, there is still a chance that England might bludgeon their way to a respectable total and/or bowl well enough to win the game. So I'm going to make this assessment now, with the score at 113/3.
The Powerplay overs are the best time in the game to score runs. The Powerplay concept was created to make it easier for batsmen to score runs. That is the point. A big score during these overs is a necessity in modern day cricket, a score of 78-1 at their end is a victory for bowlers regardless of the conditions. Boundaries are the key currency, both through piercing the necessarily-crowded infield and by going over it.
Today, we picked ostensibly the right opening partnership. We have Bell, a cultured strokemaker but one who is more than capable of scoring at a run a ball throughout his innings. Then we have Prior, the latest in a series of pinch-hitters being asked to emulate Adam Gilchrist, but a player who has shown the form for Sussex this season to suggest he is up to the task. So far so good.
Bell is then sent out with the express instruction of batting through the innings. I fail to see how anyone can bat in that manner without being given that instruction. Certainly not a player whose instinct is to play shots, and who has all the shots in his locker. But it happened, Bell managed to bat for 19 Powerplay overs - you know, the ones promoting aggression and boundary-hitting - without hitting a single boundary and at a strike rate of 50.72. He did lots of leaving, and lots of defending, which is against his instincts and must be part of a grand plan. And then got himself out for 35 (surely not a start which wasn't capitalised on...?) by slashing a loose ball to point. *
Let's leave aside the fact that this is the worst of both worlds for the aspiring ODI anchorman (scoring at below the optimum rate for the first 20 overs, and then getting out, leaving the "hitters" to play around each other). The mere fact that the concept of an anchorman is still alive and kicking in any major international cricket side is worrying enough. It was last tried by England at the 2007 World Cup, where it was an abject failure and relentlessly pilloried in England and internationally. These days, teams bat so deep that losing a couple of wickets at the top of the order in exchange for a higher strike rate is fine. In England's case, we have Stuart Broad (whose is being touted as a potential Test no. 6 and who has played at least one match-winning innings at ODI level) coming in at no. 9.
That means that teams can now afford to carry on attacking even when they are four or five down, because they have players lower down the order who are capable of picking up the pieces. The risks are lower, which makes the risk/reward ratio higher. If our top five got out and we were left with Bopara, Wright, Patel (admittedly unproven at this level, think Swann instead) and Broad to get us over the line, it wouldn't be great but it wouldn't be the end of the world.
The modern version of the anchorman is for one partner in any partnership to try to nudge the ball around and score at a run a ball (note to Peter Moores: this is a strike rate of 100.00), whilst the other tries to blast the boundaries (aiming for a strike rate of, say, 150.00). Then, when the blaster falls, the nudger becomes the blaster whilst the new batsman settles by nudging. Obviously it's not that simple, and nobody is suggesting that a par score in every ODI is 300, but it should be the mindset of the players involved. If you want an example of that sort of innings in action (albeit in a different format), you could do a lot worse than watch Owais Shah's innings in the Twenty20 final - it took my breath away.
It was suggested in parts of the press this week that this could be a pivotal series for Peter Moores. If he oversees a return to the darkest days of Duncan Fletcher, that might not be as silly as it sounds.
*For those of you who are interested, I thought Prior did a decent enough job with his 42 at 80.76. The timing of his dismissal wasn't great, but he was trying to hit England out of a flatline which is what he is there for.