Tuesday, 17 November 2009

England could surprise South Africa

Four years ago, England’s Ashes triumph was not the springboard to an era of dominance, but proved the prologue to a period of prolonged mediocrity. As they embark on their long tour of South Africa – they don’t fly back until January 19th – Andrew Strauss will be determined to build on the Ashes win. It would be a depressing indictment of English cricket if beating a side now ranked fourth in the world 2-1 at home represented a glass ceiling.

By any measure, the series in South Africa appears an even sterner challenge. For all their perennial choking in ICC limited-overs tournaments, the Proteas are ranked the best Test side in the world. Though their only series of the year so far saw them lose at home to Australia, in 2008 they recorded a formidable set of results: drawing in India; winning in England, and seeing off Michael Vaughan in the process; and finally a famous series triumph down under.

However, the Tests do not commence until December 16th, by which time the sides will have contested five one-day internationals and the drawn Twenty20s. England have almost invariably been something of a joke in the shorter formats of the game since reaching the 1992 World Cup final. New depths were plummeted in the 6-1 home thrashing by Australia. But then. Something happened.

England went to South Africa for the Champions Trophy perceived as no-hopers, and ended up reaching only their second semi-final in 12 global tournaments dating back to 1992. But more importantly the rhetoric from the camp was for once matched by deeds. England pledged to play a new brand of fearless cricket, after embarrassing themselves in consistently scraping to 220 against Australia. And, in two upset victories before reality kicked in, they managed it.

The triumph over South Africa was brought about by what Andrew Strauss called the best England ODI batting performance of his career. England shelled their inhibitions and trusted their hitting ability, hitting 12 sixes – the most they have ever managed in an ODI innings. Yet the two men together responsible for 11 of those face vastly contrasting circumstances. The diminutive Irishman Eoin Morgan will be given the opportunity to cement his position as England’s finisher. Possessing all the shots in the MCC coaching manual – and a load more developed courtesy of his ingenuity and the dexterity of his wrists – Morgan is a special talent indeed, as anyone who witnessed his 34-ball 67 in the Champions Trophy, or superlative 85* in the first Twenty20, would attest to. But so is another man who will be nowhere to be seen in South Africa.

While England talk bravely of the need to hit sixes in limited-overs games, it seems astonishing that the man who plundered six en route to a brilliant 98 in that game has since been dispensed with. Owais Shah may not be the world’s greatest fielder or runner, but he is England’s highest run-scorer in ODIs since the 2007 World Cup. No one else in England, save for Kevin Pietersen (and Marcus Trescothick), can play such destructive innings.

But his absence does provide an opportunity for Jonathan Trott. Back in the country of his birth, just like Pietersen, Trott has been accused by Michael Vaughan of celebrating with the South African side after they sealed the Test series in England last year. Trott will face scrutiny, for sure, but what really matters is his qualities as an international batsman. He displayed a fine technique and temperament in amassing 119 on debut in the decisive Ashes Test, and will occupy a position in the top three for the ODIs. It is also a big series for Joe Denly, whose international start has been full of style but not substance. The same is true for Luke Wright, fortuitously called-up to the Test squad as a Flintoff-lite.

South Africa have historically been a far better limited-overs side than England, yet in games between the two countries in the 2000s, they both have ten victories each. If England are to continue this impressive run, they will need to contain a batting line-up leaden with power, from the formidable Graeme Smith downwards. The battle between Jimmy Anderson and Smith is of huge significance for the ODIs and Tests alike. If the ball swings, Andersons represents England’s best chance of success; if he is profligate, then expect South Africa to amass huge totals.

With Steve Harmison omitted – something the home players profess to be delighted about – England run the risk of being exposed on flat tracks. The vivacious Graeme Swann will face wickets that are notoriously unconducive to spin. Stuart Broad and Graeme Onions will make up the first-choice pace attack, but opportunities abound for two men discarded after the Duncan Fletcher era. Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett have had three seasons in county cricket to learn the game after having proved that international cricket is no place for on-the-job training. Mahmood is in the ODI squad as England search for middle-over penetration; Plunkett features in the Tests, after a crucial role in Durham’s Championship triumph.

South Africa emphatically start all three series as favourites. In Smith, Jacques Kallis, Jp Duminy and Dale Steyn, they have a quartet of exceptional players. England’s best hope lies in blunting Steyn’s 90mph yorkers, which could then expose a bowling attack that is over-dependant upon him – Makhaya Ntini is ageing and Morne Morkel too erratic. Then there is Ab de Villiers to contend with: good enough to have represented South Africa in several sports, he settled on cricket and averaged 75 over the six Tests with Australia last winter.

The tour promises some intriguing cricket – as England-South Africa clashes invariably do - and will provide a real guage for England’s progress under the Strauss-Flower team. Losing the ODIs 3-2 and drawing the Tests would constitute an impressive result. For even this to be possible, the onus will be on two men with South African connections – the current and former skippers, Strauss and Kevin Pietersen. The two players of proven class in England’s batting line-up, both enjoyed extraordinary tours during England’s visit five yers ago. If they can come close to repeating those displays, England should be able to score a lot of runs.