Wounded England face SA survival test
Friday, March 18, 2016
Start time 1930 local (1400 GMT)
England are uncomfortably well acquainted with early exits from world events, so there's no disguising the peril that they once again find themselves in. The World T20's main event has barely got underway and yet, if England fail to turn an ebbing tide in which they have lost six limited-overs fixtures in a row - including their last five against Friday night's rivals, South Africa - they will be teetering on the brink before any other Group 1 side has played their second game.
Chris Gayle's ballistics could be inflicted on any team at any time, so there's no disgrace in the defeat that England suffered at the Wankhede. "We aren't the first and we certainly won't be the last," said a chastened Jos Buttler on the morning after the night before, no doubt hoping that Gayle goes on to scorch South Africa, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka with equal ferocity to keep England's qualification hopes as buoyant as can be.
Still, modern professional teams are obliged to find the positives in defeat, and therefore England will recognise the immense value of their reconnaissance. Most pertinently, they will know now not to dither if they are required to set a target - at the rate that he was going, with five fours and 11 sixes in his unbeaten 100, Gayle would have been on course to overhaul their apparently impressive target of 182 in fewer than 50 scoring strokes.
And now, hot on his heels, comes another man who knows how to ping a long ball, albeit in more subtle directions than Gayle's arc from extra cover to deep midwicket. Indeed, AB de Villiers served up a dose of Gayle's own medicine when West Indies visited Johannesburg in January 2015, clobbering an unbelievable 149 from 44 balls, including an ODI record century from 31.
With pick-up after pick-up over deep fine leg, de Villiers rode the pace and bounce at that stadium with ominous ease, especially given how - with its grassy deck and uncomfortably short boundaries - the Wankhede has much in common with South Africa's favourite home ground.
"I suppose you can compare it to the Wanderers in South Africa," Faf du Plessis, their captain, said. "You don't know what's enough runs on a wicket like this. Even if you set a great total it is sometimes not enough."
South Africa's first tournament outing places them in a familiar situation - they are among the favoured sides and the weight of expectation has only been enhanced by India's shocking loss to New Zealand. It hardly needs pointing out that they are not the world's most accomplished front-runners - and of the five different victors of the World T20 so far, they and Australia are the most notable absentees.
Those two sides completed their preparations with a three-match series in South Africa that spilled over into the qualifying week of the World T20 - and though Australia emerged as 2-1 series winners, South Africa's form remains formidable all the same.
In de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock, they possess three gun openers competing for two slots - an embarrassment of riches as the latter seems unlikely to get a game - while the rise and rise of Chris Morris is one of the more remarkable of recent times. Seemingly energised by his star status at the IPL auction, he has been playing, quite appropriately, like a million dollars.
England: LLLWW (last five completed matches)
South Africa: LLWWW
Watch out for
Admit all the talk of Buttler's scorching power, the true heart and soul of England's one-day renaissance is the irrepressible Joe Root, a batsman whose eye for a gap is second to none in the world game, and whose power is underestimated simply because finesse is front and centre of his methods. His career strike-rate in T20s, a healthy 133.67, barely pales compared to Buttler's 136.14, but his average (35.72) is more than 12 points higher. He is the reliable engine room of England's efforts and he'll know better than anyone, having compiled a serene 48 from 36 balls on Wednesday, that more haste and more speed is the requirement on this deck.
Adil Rashid's development as a matchwinning legspinner is still on track in spite of Gayle's best efforts to batter him back to the margins. But Imran Tahir is arguably flushed with even more confidence after a stellar finale to his home season in South Africa. A major factor in their turnaround in the one-day leg of England's tour, not least with the bat, where he helped Morris seal a thrilling one-wicket win at Johannesburg, Tahir has scalped 10 cheap wickets in his last five T20Is.
There's a strong case for injecting some extra bite to England's bowling, given that Liam Plunkett is gathering dust on the sidelines and Delhi - the venue for England's next two contests - is unlikely to offer anything like as much assistance for his methods. The likeliest fall guy in that eventuality would be Reece Topley, especially given how much of a threat the recalled David Willey proved to be with his new-ball swing. But England are just as likely to tell their beaten troops to get out there and do it better this time.
England (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 David Willey, 10 Chris Jordan, 11 Reece Topley
Despite his decent home form, Kyle Abbott looks likely to be squeezed out of the reckoning, with Dale Steyn back fit and firing. South Africa's unspoken quota requirements could influence the balance of the batting, with Rilee Rossouw's inclusion rather depending on whether Hashim Amla is retained ahead of de Kock at the top of the order. His serene 97 not out in their last outing against Australia, albeit in defeat, looks likely to secure his berth.
South Africa (probable) 1 Hashim Amla, 2 AB de Villiers (wk), 3 Faf du Plessis (capt), 4 JP Duminy, 5 David Miller, 6 Rilee Rossouw/Farhaan Behardien, 7 David Wiese, 8 Chris Morris, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Imran Tahir
Pitch and conditions
Quick by Asian standards, quick by most standards really, given the modern ubiquity of slow surfaces. The heavy dew that descended during the second innings on Wednesday may well be an influence at the toss. England tried not to allow that to be an excuse for their Gayle beasting but they clearly didn't relish the extra challenge.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa's recent record of five limited-overs wins in a row against England included back-to-back T20I victories in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
- The latter proved to be one of England's more ignominous performances of the past 12 months - they lost seven wickets in their last four overs to collapse from 157 for 3 to 171 all out, then succumbed to a nine-wicket defeat in the space of 14.4 overs
- These two met during the Super 10s stage of the last World T20, South Africa winning by three runs in Chittagong to send England out.
"You can have as many plans as you like but if you can't execute a skill to that plan then you're stuffed anyway."
England's Jos Buttler speaks some plain truths about their prospects
"You can never ever disrespect any other team, no matter how small they might look. I certainly learned that the hard way in the 2011 World Cup. New Zealand looked like they were the minnows, they didn't play their best cricket and they smashed us in the quarter-final. I have learnt that never again you can look at a team like that."
After watching India trip up in their tournament opener, South Africa's captain Faf du Plessis knows not to get ahead of himself
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket