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Player of the Match
Player of the Match

Years of World Cup planning, preparation and hurt all come down to this: England v South Africa

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Ganga: Archer brings wicket-taking quality to this England side (7:06)

Daren Ganga, Murali Kartik and Ajit Agarkar preview the opening game of the World Cup between England and South Africa (7:06)

Big Picture

Four years of planning, four years of preparation. Forty-four years of hurt and counting. And maybe the chance, at long last, for long-overdue World Cup redemption. But which team are we discussing here? England, the hosts, or South Africa, the challengers?

For there could be no more apt contest with which to launch the 12th Cricket World Cup - the fifth on English soil but the first for 20 years - than a match-up between the two sides with arguably the most torrid World Cup histories of them all.

In the (light-) blue corner … the hosts, the favourites, the perpetual laughing stocks. A team that reached three World Cup finals in the first five editions, lost the lot, and have not won a single knock-out fixture in the three decades since - as if the pain of further rejection has superseded any desire to countenance that long-awaited success.

And in the green-with-yellow-tinges corner, the quadrennial accidents waiting to happen. The team that spent the first four editions of the tournament on the outside looking in, but then - welcomed into the fold from 1992 onwards - somehow hit upon new and ever more gruesome ways to screw up their best-laid plans.

From rain-rules (times two), to last-ball sixes, via the single most storied run-out in World Cup history, South Africa - unlike England - have been a team from which great things have been expected, and on which great calamity has endlessly been bestowed.

Have those expectations now been swapped going into the 2019 edition? South Africa are now the team coasting into the competition with expectations at an all-time low, and the squad are consequently in something approaching a chilled-out frame of mind (although the news that SACA has just instigated legal proceedings against the board may yet be the start of a new means to disrupt that sangfroid).

Instead, it is England about whom the entire world is talking … and about whom everyone is doubtless preparing to burst out laughing if they fail to fulfil their destiny this summer. But, tellingly, no matter how wishful the thinking may be on that front, there is no escaping the notes of respect and trepidation that underpin every mention of the world No. 1s.

England's four-year journey from no-hopers to world-beaters has been stunning and well-documented - as many as five players still survive from the team that crashed out in the group stages against Bangladesh four years ago, but it is the transformation in mindset that has been stunning and unequivocal.

It began with Eoin Morgan's insistence, after that 2015 debacle, that things had to change - that England had to embrace players who, in the first instance, weren't afraid to fail, in order to free them up to become the attacking team they needed to be.

And it has continued with an almost Olympian pursuit of batting excellence. Citius, altius, fortius has been the message from the top. If in doubt, go for your shots. And if it goes wrong - as it has done on a handful of notable occasions - go again. England have made it their business to embrace their status as favourites, and to absorb the pressure that comes with that status, by wearing their learning lightly and projecting an impenetrable confidence in their overall direction of travel.

There's every possibility that England will once again fall short as they attempt to claim the silverware that eluded the likes of Gooch and Botham, Gatting and Gower. But the round-robin format mitigates against one-off accidents - and two notable notches in this team's recent history stand as testaments to the fact that no contest is over until it is over.

The brutality of England's defeat in the World T20 final in 2016 was followed a year later by the totality of their collapse against Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy. Both matches, however, came earlier than expected in England's journey into the light. Morgan himself had always envisaged a four-year plan when it came to scraping his team off the turf after that dreadful defeat in Adelaide.

As for South Africa … who could forget the shattered minds and bodies that littered the Auckland outfield after that semi-final defeat four years ago? They perhaps felt, in that moment, that their latest and best chance at glory had been snatched by Grant Elliott's scythe through the line. And yet, the core of that squad are back for another go four years on - lessened by the loss of AB de Villiers in the interim, but emboldened perhaps by their relative anonymity and bolstered by a raft of young guns who, as Faf du Plessis pointed out in the pre-match press conference, have experience of winning a World Cup at under-19 level.

And so here we are, at the start of a potential 11 matches on the road to overdue glory. So near, so far. So often. So what's it to be this time?

Form guide

England WWWWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)

South Africa WWWWW

In the spotlight

England are "obsessed" with reaching the 500-mark, says Virat Kohli. And if that statement was merely an exercise in mind games, it nevertheless cut straight to the quick of England's World Cup credentials. They go into the competition as favourites on account of their awesome batting power, and no-one epitomises that better right now than the man who is likely to face their first ball of the tournament. Jason Roy's partnership with Jonny Bairstow is already among the most statistically awesome in ODI history, but on his Surrey home ground, and with a run of two fifties and a hundred in his last three ODI innings, it is Roy who seems best placed to produce the game-shaping onslaught - not least after his dress-rehearsal 89 not out from 46 balls against Afghanistan on this very ground. What is more, he has a point to prove in global events, after his drastic collapse in form during the 2017 Champions Trophy. If it really is to be England's time this time, then Roy is one of the men who must surely shine.

There was a palpable sense of panic in South Africa's ranks when Kagiso Rabada was flown home early from the IPL after sustaining a back niggle. Thoroughbred fast bowlers of his calibre are few and far between, and seeing as their all-time great, Dale Steyn, is going into the tournament with a shoulder injury that is set to rule him out of at least the first two games, the loss of the heir apparent would have been grievous. And yet, CSA's caution appears to have got Rabada to the starting line with no lasting damage. He eased back into action with seven well-directed overs in the warm-up against Sri Lanka - scalping Dimuth Karunaratne with a 140kph bouncer - and a bowler of his pace, skill and reputation is precisely the sort of weapon to rattle England's formidable ball-strikers. Who could forget his most recent appearance in an ODI in England, at Lord's in 2017?

Team news

England's XI has been chosen a full 24 hours in advance, and seeing as Eoin Morgan has declared a "full bill of health", there would seem to be just one strategic call to be made - do they trust Mark Wood, post-ankle scare, to hurtle in at the 90mph pace that he was able to display in his solitary outing against Pakistan earlier this month, despite having bowled just 13.1 competitive overs this season. Or do they revert to the tried-and-tested Liam Plunkett, England's most prolific fast-bowling wicket-taker since the 2015 World Cup, and a man whose very modus operandi is that he will let no-one down?

England: 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jonny Bairstow, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Jofra Archer, 11 Liam Plunkett/Mark Wood.

Steyn, as mentioned, is hors de combat, although it's a scenario that has not caught his captain, Faf du Plessis, unawares - South Africa's spearhead came into the World Cup about "60 percent ready", he explained on the eve of the match. Lungi Ngidi and Rabada will provide ample pace interjections in his absence, while South Africa have a brace of seasoned allrounders to fill the Steyn void. Of the two, Chris Morris seems more likely to get first dibs than Dwayne Pretorius.

South Africa: (possible) 1 Hashim Amla, 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Faf du Plessis (capt), 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 David Miller, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Chris Morris, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Imran Tahir.

Pitch and conditions

It looks a green and lively surface at this stage of the build-up, and assuming it retains that tinge of grass come the toss, it'll be a no-brainer, bowl-first wicket. England's preference is invariably to chase, but stand by for 40 minutes of hard graft against the new balls for whichever side is asked to take first strike. Thereafter, of course, you can expect normal service to apply. A true-paced batting wicket, brimful of runs. Rain was falling on match eve but the forecast for Thursday is warm, cloudy and dry.

Stats and trivia

  • Neither team has lost a match in their most recent five-match ODI series. South Africa crushed Sri Lanka 5-0 on home soil in their final outing in March, while England beat Pakistan 4-0 (with one game, at The Oval, washed out).

  • England beat South Africa 2-1 in their most recent ODI encounter, in 2017. However, their one defeat was instructive. Facing up to Rabada on a Lord's greentop, they suffered one of their habitual batting malfunctions, tumbling to 20 for 6 and a seven-wicket defeat.

  • Warm-up matches may not count for much in the final analysis, but England certainly enjoyed their preview of the Oval conditions on Monday, battering Afghanistan by nine wickets with 195 balls left unused.

  • England fared okay on the last occasion that they hosted a World Cup opener - beating Sri Lanka by eight wickets at Lord's in 1999 - in one of their few highlights of a dismal campaign.

  • South Africa, however, had less to write home about when they hosted West Indies in the 2003 curtain-raiser. A Brian Lara special condemned them to a three-run defeat, one that would prove rather costly a few weeks down the line …

Quotes

"The level of expectation and favourite tags is there for a reason. Over the last two years, our form at home, in particular, has been outstanding. That's the reason the expectation is there."
Eoin Morgan embraces England's front-runners status.

"England are the favourites, so if it means on the day there is less pressure on us then we can play freely. We are going in as underdogs and if that releases some players in the team, then that is great."
Faf du Plessis embraces England's front-runners status too.

South Africa 2nd innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st14HM AmlaQ de Kock
1st22Q de KockAK Markram
2nd8F du PlessisQ de Kock
3rd85HE van der DussenQ de Kock
4th13JP DuminyHE van der Dussen
5th2D PretoriusHE van der Dussen
6th23HE van der DussenAL Phehlukwayo
7th13HM AmlaAL Phehlukwayo
8th13HM AmlaK Rabada
9th14L NgidiK Rabada
10th0Imran TahirL Ngidi