Wanted: More aggression from England
One of the great puzzles about South Africa since re-admission is why they have performed so poorly against England. The last time England toured, in 2004-05, England brought the side which won the Ashes a few months later and may just have had a slight edge which they duly converted to a series win, but on every other occasion South Africa's team has been obviously miles better - until you look at the scoreline and find that if they managed to win at all, it was only by the odd Test, and that they even contrived to lose in 1998. In one-day cricket, at which South Africa are known to be good and England known to be hopeless, the score between the sides in the 2000s is 10-all with one tie and two no-results.
I have no wish to know why South Africa underperform against England -- and would rather no-one found out, because the consequence has been fascinating cricket with ding-dong battles and it would be a shame to dispel the magic.
And although it would be amazing if the ODI series which is about to begin will consistently emulate the last match these sides played, at Centurion a few weeks ago in the Champions Trophy, we can hope.
As an exhibition of 50-over cricket, that was probably the best game of the tournament. Entirely against the trend of performances going back as long as one can usefully remember, England batted positively and effectively throughout, with a text-book rocket boost at the end of the innings courtesy of Eoin Morgan. South Africa's gallant reply was led by Graeme Smith's century, which was as epic as Tendulkar's hundred against Australia on Thursday, with the same heartbreaking result. It was one of those games neither side really deserved to lose but someone had to.
I'm hoping that the one-day series will be played as that game was. In particular I want to see England taking that aggressive approach with the bat. I want to see more England batsmen playing like Bangladeshis, hitting out as often as possible even if they get out while doing it. I'd prefer it if they didn't lose their wickets quite as quickly as Bangladeshis, but it's the thought that counts here.
Their performance in the first warm-up game against Boeta Dippenaar's Eagles is therefore generally encouraging. Only Joe Denly and Paul Collingwood failed to deliver, and Wright, Broad and especially Morgan had strike rates well over 100. (Wright's was higher, over 200, but Morgan played the more substantial innings, starting well before the end-of-innings charge.)
I hope Denly starts to do better soon, since he is the new England recruit who most fascinates me. He has not so far achieved much in the way of scores but he does something which very few England batsmen do, which is advance down the wicket to turn fast bowlers' good length balls into half-volleys and tee off in the early overs. It's not the only way of scoring runs at the top of the order, but it is the most effective demonstration that the batsman is intent on dominating the bowler – and that kind of intent has been missing without trace for years from England's one-day side. He is also a superb fielder in the deep: in that game against South Africa he scored only 21 runs, but he took two catches and saved a good couple of dozen runs in the field.
The likelihood has to be that England will fail more often than not by taking the aggressive approach in the short term. But they aren't going to get better at playing the aggressive game by going defensive as soon as anything goes wrong: they have to keep trying until they get it right. Denly as much as anyone, and if he breaks through and starts recording the big scores, we will at last have found someone to do the job Tresco used to do.