All-round England seek the knock-out blow
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Start time 1330 local (1130 GMT)
Two-nil up with a trip to Centurion to come. As in the Test series, so now in the ODIs as England head for the Highveld with a rare double on the cards. Not since Australia's all-conquering tour of 2001-02 has a visiting team beaten South Africa in both the Test and 50-over series, but with confidence coursing through the squad and three opportunities to seal the rubber lined up ahead of them this week, England are in the rare but increasingly familiar situation of being recognised as a one-day force.
Nevertheless, if the Centurion Test is anything to go by - and AB de Villiers wasn't slow to hark back to it during the post-match interviews at Port Elizabeth on Saturday - England cannot and will not be expecting easy access to the spoils. The rarefied atmosphere plays to South Africa's strengths, and with Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott raising exponentially the quality of the hosts' seam attack with their twin recalls for the second match, another full-blooded contest should be on the cards.
Nevertheless, there is a serenity to England's one-day cricket at present that belies the power-packed batting with which it is underpinned. Jos Buttler's ferocious form gives them a match-winning asset that would be the envy of any team in the world, but putting 399 on the board in the opening match at Bloemfontein was arguably the easy bit. Far tougher was the discipline required on a trickier track at Port Elizabeth, the onus being on digging in and batting deep, and treating South Africa's target of 263 with the sort of respect that such mid-range totals rarely receive in this day and age.
Certainly, Eoin Morgan, England's captain, was delighted with the application his players showed, not least Alex Hales whose hard-grafted 99 was the rock on which their run-chase was established. Gone is the mechanical, inhibited attitude that was instilled during Peter Moores' ill-fated second coming as England coach, and instead there is a greater willingness to trust the men in the middle to judge their approaches accordingly. Buttler's uncomplicated 48 not out from 28 balls made the win look pre-ordained in the end, but this was a team run-chase and one that augurs well for the side's development ahead of the Champions Trophy in 2017.
South Africa, however, are down but far from out, as Rabada and Abbott proved with the ball, and de Villiers in particular, showed with the bat. His three-duck aberration at the end of the Test series meant that the only way for such an outstanding player was up, and had it not been for the second astonishing outfield catch in consecutive games, he might well be fully powered-up once again. Ben Stokes' one-handed pluck at Bloemfontein was followed by Chris Jordan's toweringly composed grab in the deep at Port Elizabeth, a dismissal that - with de Villiers already on 73 from 91 balls and with ten overs of carnage in the offing - almost certainly saved England from a chase in the region of 300.
Those dismissals, however, pointed to that extra and potentially decisive attribute of England's current play - their all-round prowess. With the bat, their top ten are beyond competent, with only Reece Topley providing a throwback to more specialised days; with the ball, they have options flooding out of their line-up, with two left-arm seamers to lead the line, Stokes a genuine all-round option, two spinners in Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid whom Morgan trusted to bowl their allocation straight through on Saturday, and finally Jordan himself - under-used at present and arguably the weak link in the line-up, but whose impact, as that catch shows, cannot always be expressed by statistics.
South Africa, by contrast, lean too heavily on too few, not least with the ball, where Farhaan Behardien has struggled to fulfil his brief as an out-and-out fifth bowler. Not even Quinton de Kock's brilliance at Bloemfontein could bridge the gulf that had been caused by their bowlers' inability to stem the tide. As in the Tests, so too in the ODIs. England's options appear to give them that crucial edge.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa: LLWLW
In the spotlight
He picked up a stinker in the second ODI, and could be seen bashing his pad in frustration after Quinton de Kock's failed review had robbed him of any recourse, but JP Duminy's 47 from 66 balls was nevertheless the first stirrings of a return to form for one of South Africa's most frustratingly inconsistent performers. His shortcomings against offspin remain a running joke - Moeen Ali conceded eight singles from 28 deliveries to Duminy, and a further eight to overthrows - but in a side struggling for all-round options, his dual abilities with the ball mean he is still a vital performer.
Alex Hales endured an ignominious maiden Test series, caught invariably between attack and defence as he struggled to translate his free-flowing strokeplay to the intense glare of a five-day contest. Ironic, then, that his 99 from 124 balls in the second ODI was a defensive masterclass of a run-chase, as he set his stall out for the long haul and blinked only when a freebie on his hip offered him the chance to hurtle through to his second 50-over hundred. The manner of his parting perhaps suggested that his confidence isn't yet fully restored, but he's back on track and England are all the better for it.
South Africa are grappling with how to fit a fifth specialist bowler into the XI without shortening the batting line-up, and may have no choice but to go in without an unchanged team. That would mean no space for either allrounder - Chris Morris or David Wiese - unless they are willing to risk resting Morne Morkel.
South Africa (probable) 1 Hashim Amla, 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 JP Duminy, 6 Rilee Rossouw, 7 Farhaan Behardien, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Kyle Abbott, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
No overwhelming reasons for England to change a winning formula. Their batting line-up is set in stone, and of the bowlers only Chris Jordan and arguably David Willey have failed to make persuasive cases for their retention. Stuart Broad claims to be content to carry the drinks after his Test exploits, but it would be peculiar to have recalled such an experienced performer without intending to give him a run in the side, with both the World Twenty20 and the Champions Trophy both looming on the horizon.
England (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Jordan / Stuart Broad, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 David Willey, 11 Reece Topley
Pitch and conditions
Centurion will not be as flat as Bloemfontein, nor as slow as Port Elizabeth, so it will be another completely different type of surface: There should be a fair amount of pace and carry for the quicks and plenty of runs. The weather is expected to be warm with chances of an afternoon shower bringing Duckworth-Lewis-Stern into play.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa have won 21 of their 32 completed ODIs at Centurion, including each of the last three positive results.
- England, however, have won each of their last two ODIs at the venue - they beat South Africa by 22 runs to reach the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy in 2009, then followed up with a seven-wicket win two months later.
- With scores of 49 not out, 116 not out, 105 and 48 not out, Jos Buttler has scored 318 runs from 208 deliveries for once out in his last four ODIs.
"It would be a blow to lose to the series but we are not thinking about that. If we win this, we get some momentum for the next one and then hopefully win the one in Cape Town. That's how we are visioning our progress from here. Everything starts tomorrow. Tomorrow is basically a decider for us. We've got three finals in a row."
Hashim Amla on the uphill task facing South Africa in the coming week.
"Of all the deliveries you could get on 99, one on your hip is the one you want. But that's the way the game goes, and I'm pleased I contributed - and that now we're two from two."
Alex Hales rues the one that got away after his dismissal at Port Elizabeth.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket