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Maybe one day we will look back on the South Africa v England ODI series and think “This was where it all began.” We probably won't, of course, but should England win the 2011 World Cup, the roots will be traceable back to South Africa 2009.
They will not be the best team in the world by then, but it is entirely possible to win the World Cup without being the best team in the tournament, as India showed in 1983, by being the best on the day - several times, if need be. That's the nature of tournament play. And what England have managed, when the weather allowed, is to beat a superior team by being better on a couple of days.
As against Australia during the Ashes, they grabbed hold of some key moments and never let go. It is not the holding on that is the difficult part, though, so much as the creating of key moments to grab. The difference about England in this series is that they now have a number of players capable of doing it.
Kevin Pietersen is one, according to past experience, and so is Fred Flintoff if he's ever fit enough to play, but neither of them made any contribution at all, whether or not they were physically present, so we can now see Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan, Paul Collingwood and even Tim Bresnan as blokes who can play a momentum-grabbing innings or bowl a critical spell, whether wicket-taking or strangling, and in Strauss see a captain with the acumen to think on the hop and capitalise on opportunities.
Few previous England one-day captains would have had the gumption first to bring Anderson back in the 21st over at Port Elizabeth and then to bowl him out rather than holding an over or two in reserve. Most of Strauss's predecessors would have carried on fiddling around with lesser bowlers for another ten or twelve overs, by which time the middle order could easily have recovered some equilibrium and South Africa gone on to make 211/9, sub-par but a score which England would probably have found challenging.
His batting is still pretty hit or miss by international standards but it sets a moral example to the team. If the skipper is prepared to push himself to play more aggressively than he is naturally comfortable with, the rest of them have no excuse to hang back, and one can sense the feeling of freedom as the middle order come out to bat.
Because of Strauss's leadership, England are now playing optimistic one-day cricket: they have no idea whether they are going to win the next game but they will give it a decent shot because – at last – they believe in themselves.
This does not make England a team to be feared in one-day cricket. They still deservedly inhabit the lower parts of the ranking table, and will very likely lose a lot of games as well as winning some. But long-suffering fans of the team can, with any luck at least, now sit down to watch an ODI without that awful foreboding that it is all going to go horribly wrong over the next two or three hours and can even expect England to provide some of the day's entertainment rather than just be the stooges for an exhibition by a team which really knows what it is doing.
It is only a start, but if things go on like this, Andrew Strauss may yet be remembered as the captain who made a sought-after designer handbag out of the sow's ear of England's one-day team.
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