England plot a way past South Africa's batsmen
By finishing second in Group A, England have been drawn against South Africa, winners of Group D, in the quarter-finals of the Under-19 World Cup in Townsville. It is a clash between two professional and well-drilled outfits that contains what could potentially be one of the contests of the tournament: England's new-ball attack against South Africa's openers.
The majority of England's players had the day off on Friday, after beating Nepal by 127 runs the day before, and spent it recuperating at their service apartments on Palmer Street: playing FIFA, watching bits of the Lord's Test, staying out of the harsh sun and keeping off their feet as much as possible. Today, they're back to practicing with sharpened focus. Tim Boon, their coach, said: "We're as best prepared as we can be."
England have played South Africa before, in a seven-match home series they lost 2-4 in July last year. Only eight of those South Africans, however, are part of the World Cup squad so half of their outfit is not familiar to Adam Ball's team. Someone they do know well is the opening batsman Quinton de Kock, who top scored with 341 runs in that series. "We felt if we could get him out early and expose that middle order as early as we could, we were right in there," said Ball, England's captain. "That will probably one of our main goals this time around and we will see how it goes."
De Kock is a threat once again. He enters the quarter-final as the World Cup's leading run-scorer, 226 in three innings in Brisbane. His opening partner Chad Bowes is third on the list with 179 and they have been responsible for South Africa's substantial batting success so far. In Reece Topley and Jamie Overton, however, England have two of the tallest and quickest bowlers in the World Cup, and they'll be gunning for those South African scalps as early as possible.
"Quinton de Kock had a good series against us but we know how he plays, so there won't be any surprises there," said Topley. "We've got good plans and we'll attack him. We'll attack most of the order to be honest."
Since that defeat to South Africa, England's Under-19 cricketers have had a rigorous training programme at home, and toured Bangladesh and Australia. "I'd like to think so," said Boon, when asked whether his players were significantly improved now. "Over the last two years quite a number of our guys have been getting international experience, which is what it is all about."
A "bombshell," was how Boon described what his players were hit with when they entered theEngland Development Programme. "It's a really tough regime. Just the work rates and the key learnings at 16-17, it's a very intensive program at that age."
Ball said the focus of the system he'd been through was to produce "mentally tough players". He said they'd learned the discipline required of a professional cricketer, the sacrifices that were necessary, and how they couldn't "just go away and do what every other person does in their daily life."
"We have had some very stressful times preparing for this," Ball said. "We have been preparing for about two years now. That involves long periods up to 10 days at Loughborough, our centre of excellence. Very long days - waking up at 6am and leaving thecentre at about 8pm in the evening. So we have been put through the hard yards and now it's come to the business time."
The business time didn't begin well. After winning both warm-up games comfortably, England were sent in by Australia on a difficult batting wicket at Tony Ireland Stadium and dismissed for 143 in their first group match. "We learnt a lot of lessons in the game that we lost against Australia. There were some fundamental things that we didn't do and that was just to occupy the crease and see the tough times out," said Boon. "The toss made it tricky early doors, and I think we could have coped with that a little better. It provided us with another learning experience. Most of our players now have played and either got runs or had a decent bowl so everyone's in a pretty good frame of mind."
In their next two games, England did occupy the crease, chasing 113 in 36.3 overs againstIreland with seven wickets in hand, and making 274 against Nepal. Ball saw room for more improvement. "I think making sure that we post big scores on the board for our bowlers to defend and then again, to chase down big scores," he said. "We have shown signs that we can do it but we just need to keep developing that on a consistent basis."
One of their problems has been at the top of the order. Coming into the World Cup, Daniel Bell-Drummond had been tipped to be one of the batsmen to watch, but he's managed only 31 runs in three innings. He began with a duck against Australia and finished the group stage with a hard-earned 23 against Nepal. Boon said it was a "question of time" before Bell-Drummond came right.
"DBD [Bell-Drummond] is an exceptional player, an exceptional character," said Boon. "He's been in a rich vein of form, he's scored runs [for Kent] against the senior South African team and to me it's just a question of time before he comes right."
The quarter-final against South Africa could be Bell-Drummond's last opportunity to show the world what he can do. Topley, however, is confident that it won't be. He believes this class of England Under-19 has been groomed to successfully deal "with pressure situations such as Sunday".
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo