June 23, 2017
Start time 5pm local (1600 GMT)
What are we to make of South Africa's efforts on their tour of England so far? They arrived in the country as the world's No.1 ODI side, but having impressed only in spurts in their 2-1 series defeat against England, they were dumped out in the group stages of the Champions Trophy after a pair of scatter-brained defeats to India and Pakistan. And now it's hard to know which direction they think they are pointing after a puzzling loss in the opening T20I at the Ageas Bowl.
There were signs of obvious life while AB de Villiers and Farhaan Behardien were adding 110 runs for South Africa's fourth wicket to revive their side from a perilous 32 for 3. The trouble is, they gnawed through 95 balls in doing so, all the while giving off the vibe of two men combatting untold demons in the wicket. It was an approach that caused a few pundits to hedge their bets at the halfway mark - mindful, perhaps, of England's most recent batting effort against South Africa - but no-one was fooled for long.
A target of 143 was never remotely in doubt as soon as Jason Roy signalled a return to his hard-hitting best, and had it not been for his aberration of a reverse-sweep with a match-sealing innings at his mercy, England would have backed themselves to wrap up a ten-wicket victory for the third time in their T20 history. The state of South Africa's fielding - for so many years one of the proudest aspects of their game - merely added to that sense of inevitability. Berhardien's drop of Alex Hales on the long-on boundary was the most cataclysmic moment in a ragged display.
But, T20 being what it is, few international sides can be written off for long - not least a side that possesses a true great such as de Villiers in their ranks. Only a player of his calibre could make an unbeaten 65 from 58 balls seem dour, but having enjoyed his extended net in the Southampton sunshine, who's to say he won't find the short boundaries at Taunton much more to his liking? After all, his fellow RCB superstar, Chris Gayle, took to this surface with alacrity two seasons ago, smashing 151 from 62 balls in a NatWest T20 Blast contest against Kent, including one of his 15 (fifteen!) sixes being retrieved by a soggy fan from the nearby River Tone.
The trouble for South Africa is that England aren't exactly shy about giving it a tonk in permissive situations either - Jonny Bairstow's ballistic innings a case in point. England's perennial stand-in batted with the brazen hostility of a man who is fed up of being made to wait for his opening, and his unbeaten 60 from 35 balls made even Alex Hales, the possessor of England's highest limited-overs score, look pedestrian alongside him. Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler, Taunton's second-favourite export after Scrumpy, weren't even required to flex their muscles, let alone Sam Billings, who might at a pinch have touched the ball in the deep at some stage of the contest, but overall produced less activity than an office-based clock-watcher on a Friday afternoon.
And on that note, if the events of the Ageas Bowl are anything to go by, the result matters little compared to the opportunity for a packed house to appreciate a rare international contest in their neck of the woods, while skiving from work early to soak up the English summer as it deigns to make an appearance. It promises to be fun while it lasts, even if there have been, and will continue to be, bigger prizes up for grabs this season.
England WLLWL (completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LWLLW
In the spotlight
Jos Buttler has toured the world in his short but sharp stint as a limited-overs powerhouse - racking up international appearances at 52 venues to date, from Mirpur to Malahide, from Headingley to Hamilton. But on Friday, he'll make his first England appearance in the town of his birth, and his kith and kin will be expecting a masterclass. Buttler upped sticks from Taunton back in 2013, a move prompted in part by the need to tone his wicketkeeping skills, with Craig Kieswetter then still a fixture behind the stumps, prior to the terrible facial injury that forced his early retirement. Buttler has played on the ground just once since his departure, for Lancashire against Somerset in the County Championship in June 2014. It wasn't the most comfortable experience of his career, as he made 18 and 4 in a hard-fought draw. Friday ought to be a much more pleasurable homecoming.
There were few positives for South Africa to take from their shellacking, but for JJ Smuts. At least, things can only get better. His nervy poke outside off to David Willey's first delivery at the Ageas Bowl resulted in an inside-edge and a golden duck, which leaves his international tally at a precarious 36 runs from four matches to date. Still, Smuts does at least have a second string to his bow, and his perfectly serviceable left-arm spin was one of the few restrictive weapons that de Villiers was able to call upon in England's run-chase. He took the new ball and kept things tight, and maybe the confidence gained from his three overs for 20 will rub off on his batting.
It's hard to know what to expect from this match, and the series finale in Cardiff as well, on account of England's stated commitment to pack-shuffling. Each of their five debutants has been guaranteed an outing at some stage, which means that, even though Mason Crane's hugely composed debut should have earned him the right to give his legspin another rip, those short boundaries at the County Ground may prompt a change of tactic - and where better to blood Somerset's Craig Overton than on his very own ground? One enforced change will be the omission of Mark Wood, who was only ever going to play the first match, as England wrap his race-horse-delicate body up in cotton wool before the Test series. Liam Plunkett is the obvious deck-hitting alternative. Among the batters, Dawid Malan and Liam Livingstone, Lancashire's star in the making, are both itching to get a hit, though they are hardly alone after the Ageas Bowl mismatch. Surely they won't dare rest Bairstow just as he becomes an automatic pick? The less volcanic option would be to blood Dawid Malan as an opener and give Hales a day off to top up his tan.
England (possible): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Alex Hales/Dawid Malan, 3 Jonny Bairstow, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Sam Billings/Liam Livingstone, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Liam Dawson, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 David Willey 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 Craig Overton
For South Africa, it's hard to see how they can justify the exclusion of Chris Morris and his heavy artillery, but with quota issues to consider, there are always extra factors at play in their selection. Wayne Parnell was heavily criticised for another leaky day at the office - his 23-run over to Roy was effectively game over - but his ability to clear the ropes cannot be discounted for a team who clearly need more oomph in their batting.
South Africa (possible): 1 JJ Smuts, 2 Reeza Hendricks, 3 AB de Villiers (capt), 4 David Miller, 5 Farhaan Berhardien, 6 Mangaliso Mosehle (wk), 7 Wayne Parnell, 8 Chris Morris, 9 Andile Phehlukwayo, 10 Imran Tahir, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Pitch and conditions
The weather has retreated from the white heat of the past few days, but a pleasantly cloudy afternoon is in prospect. Given Taunton's reputation for limited-overs batting tracks, if England bat first, it's hard to see them doing anything other than planting the front foot, and aiming for the Quantocks. The first-class pitches do tend to sit up for the spinners, however...
Stats and trivia
England's victory in the first T20I featured fewer wickets (four) than had ever before been taken in a completed T20I of 30 overs or more.
If anyone doubted the potential for a run-feast on this surface, the recent Royal London show-down between Somerset and Nottinghamshire ought to set them straight. Nottinghamshire batted first and racked up 429 for 9; Somerset stayed in the hunt to the bitter end, making 405 all out with two overs left unused.
As if Buttler needs any greater incentive to angle for a promotion up the order, he needs another 57 runs to complete 1000 runs in T20I cricket.
"Ever since Taunton was awarded the game it was one I have been desperate to try and be involved in."
Jos Buttler can't wait to get stuck into his homecoming contest
"It's not done and dusted. We go to Taunton and like all South Africans we always fight our way back so I'm expecting a really good performance in the next one."
AB de Villiers backs his side to force their way back into the series