Ruthless South Africa give hosts a hiding
And so it came to pass that England's chaotic campaign encountered the emotionless machine that is South Africa. And lo, a crushing did ensue. A packed and anticipatory crowd flocked to Trent Bridge - the true home of English cricket, in the opinion of David Hussey - but all they witnessed on their evening out (aside from a pleasing sunset) was a lesson of biblical proportions. Whether England had brought their A-, C-, or Z-game to the contest, the result always threatened to be the same. The extent to which they were outclassed was chastising.
In theory England put up a fight, but only in the manner that a mouse might land a chomp on a cat's nose while being tossed from paw to paw. Jacques Kallis may be a batsman reformed since his second season with the IPL, but he still finds it hard to resist an opportunity to torture when he could bludgeon. His bloodless 57 not out was a throwback to dourer times. And the serenity with which he accumulated merely compounded the gulf between the sides.
"We were outclassed," admitted England's captain, Paul Collingwood. "On the day they were much better than us, it's as simple as that. I think a good total on that wicket was more like 150, but you're only going to defend 111 probably one out of ten times. We lost early wickets in the first six overs, and it really put us behind the eight-ball, but they set the standards with the fielding and the bowling, and I think they really proved why they are the favourites in the competition."
England's performance graph in this competition now reads like a sadist's guide to economic recovery - a humungous crash following the defeat against the Dutch, a wildly over-inflated recovery against Pakistan, and now this - a truer reflection of England's standing now that the bubble has been burst. There's no point in recriminations this time around. The simple truth is that South Africa are a superb outfit who deserve the tag of favourites. England, on the other hand, are just not very good.
"[That favourites' tag] has been on our heads since the first game we played," said South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith. "But it's not important to us. At this phase the only important thing is to get to the semi-finals and move onto that challenge. We wanted to be clinical today, and that's what we were. We wanted to put in a really intense performance with the ball. The bowlers led the way, the fielders were great, and we created a lot of pressure on England, and squeezed them."
It wasn't just a squeeze, it was a boa-like asphyxiation. Cunning bowling accounted for England's openers, Ravi Bopara and the thrash-happy Luke Wright; stunning fielding from Roelof van der Merwe curtailed Kevin Pietersen's innings in its prime. Wayne Parnell conceded seven runs from his first three overs; Albie Morkel even chipped in with the tournament's first maiden. There was absolutely nothing that England could do to haul themselves back from the brink.
"I think that's the nature of Twenty20 cricket," shrugged Collingwood. "You can have an outstanding performance, or you can have a defeat and everybody thinks you haven't turned up. We just won the last game very convincingly against Pakistan, so we were hoping to get another total like that and put them under pressure. Today I think it was just the fact that we lost too many early wickets. That was due to a couple of bad shots and some exceptional fielding. It only takes a 50-50 chance, a great catch like KP's catch to turn the game. That's why they are favourites."
Sadly for England's hopes of progressing in this tournament, Twenty20 tactics involve rather more than a wing and a prayer, as the Man of the Match amply demonstrated with his devastatingly paced innings. "There are times when you can play sensibly in this game in chasing totals, there are times when you can get in trouble going too hard," said Kallis. "Obviously chasing 110, we didn't need to attack too much, we just needed one guy to bat at roughly one a ball, and the other guys to play around him."
Such circumspection, however, was a world away from Collingwood's gung-ho gameplan. "You've got to attack in this form of the game, that's how we put Pakistan under pressure," he said. "We're not going to win by sitting back. Twenty20 cricket is about putting the opposition under pressure from ball one. We've got to make sure we have the attitude of 'keep going for it'. We're not going to get anywhere by being conservative and say we must keep wickets in hand. We have to go out there and back ourselves. Tonight we did that but we lost some wickets."
That, however, is the trouble with relying on all-out attack. Wright's penchant for expansive swishes outside off, for example, is unlikely to be reined in, but for every innings in which bat does make good contact with ball, there will be several like this evening's, in which his first contact with the bat is a feathered nick to the keeper. Tonight England came up against opponents whose knowhow leaves them for dead. It does not bode well for their prospects of surviving a brutal group featuring India and a revitalised West Indies.
"You can't afford to take your foot off the gas in this tournament," said Smith, which was a subtly different sentiment to that of his opposite number. "We enjoy our cricket, we're preparing well, we're a talented team with youth and experience, and we're playing with confidence after the terrific season we've had. We'll go away and tactically look at a few things, but if we can play to the level we've played so far, we're a hard team to beat. We just need to make sure we rock up to each game and play to that level."
Sadly for England, that level appears to be way out of their league. Despite the scoreline, today's performance was not a humiliation of Lord's proportions. But, having gorged themselves on feeble West Indian performances and Sunday's peculiarly distracted Pakistanis, this time, there were no mitigating circumstances to hide behind. And a hiding is what they got.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo