Seven matches in, India's World Cup is about to begin. They will meet a South Africa side already two bruising games into their own campaign, and already reeling from defeat and injury. Knocked flat by England in the opener, they were left chasing Bangladesh's dust on Sunday. Until Tuesday, no Indian squad member addressed the press while Faf du Plessis has spent more time in pressers than he has in the middle.
It's not that India haven't found ways to fill the hours. Virat Kohli has been to London, to visit the Queen (no news on whether he frightened a little mouse under her chair) while the squad has even kicked back with a game of paintball between training sessions, and Sunday was a rest day.
South Africa, meanwhile, have already had a batsman concussed, a bowler limp off with a tweaked hamstring, twice conceded 300-plus totals and twice failed to chase them down. And now possibly the biggest blow of all: Dale Steyn has been ruled out of the tournament. The India match will be their third in six days, and there has been barely any time for respite, never mind to formulate a Plan B (or C, or D).
"Time to panic," Jonty Rhodes tweeted as Bangladesh motored to their highest-ever ODI total on Sunday. If that was a time to panic then, comrades, now is the time to push the big, red button on this Chernobyl-style meltdown. If you're a South African fan, this might be the time to look away. The numbers in this preview are going to make for gruesome viewing.
South Africa - sans Steyn and Ngidi - will arrive at the Hampshire Bowl, a ground where 734 runs were scored just over three weeks ago ,with the task of taming a batting line-up that is, on reputation, second only to England in its destructive capacities. Virat Kohli is the best one-day batsman of the age, while Rohit Sharma is the only man ever to score three one-day double hundreds. Between them, they have scored more ODI hundreds (63) than the entire South African squad (61).
And then there's Shikhar Dhawan, who carries an average of 64.69 at ICC tournaments into this game. And even if South Africa can get past those three and into the middle order, MS Dhoni - Indian cricket's paterfamilias himself - awaits there.
A strong Indian batting line-up is hardly news, but India are also here with what is arguably their best bowling attack in generations - and possibly their best ever in ODIs. Certainly, India's current bowling attack has been their best between World Cups, going back as far as the 1999 tournament, which was the last one to be held in England. The present attack has picked up eight wickets, on average, per innings: the best for an Indian bowling attack between World Cups. They have also picked up a wicket once every 34 balls, again the best for an Indian bowling unit between World Cups.
They will also be fresh. India will begin their campaign a week after the start of the ICC's pinnacle 50-over tournament following the Lodha Commission's recommendation which requires a 15-day window between the last IPL match and the first international fixture, and which the ICC have agreed to honour.
While India are unburdened by anything other than, perhaps, expectation, South Africa are facing the prospect of having to win five of their next seven games in order to have a chance of progressing to the (historically, dreaded) knockouts. If it seams or swings, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami will get them. If it spins, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal will. If it's flat, Kohli and co. will bat them out of the game. South Africa have nowhere to hide.
Bangladesh's win at The Oval on Sunday wasn't a shock. In their current state, a South African victory in Southampton would be.
South Africa: LLWWW
In the spotlight
He bowled the only maiden of the innings as Bangladesh amassed their highest ever ODI total on Sunday, broke through a stubborn. 60-run opening stand, and returned with another vital breakthrough in the 43rd over, with Bangladesh poised, snapping a World Cup record partnership by getting rid of a set Mushfiqur Rahim for 78. Before he leaked leaked 22 runs from his last two overs - albeit in the midst of Mahmudullah and Mosaddek Hossain's 66-run rampage - his figures were 8-1-30-2. Plan A is long gone
for South Africa and without Ngidi and Steyn, Andile Phehlukwayo's ability to step up, wrest control and win crucial moments with both ball and bat will be key.
KL Rahul has probably leapfrogged into the No. 4 position, having originally been something of a third back-up opener. His century against Bangladesh helped him to push Vijay Shankar aside and stake a claim for the position, and in both warm-ups he has been into the fray relatively early. Whatever his recent struggles in Test cricket might have been, Rahul expresses himself much more freely in limited-overs cricket. He's got stars on either side of him in the batting order, but now he's also got a chance to shine himself.
Steyn and Ngidi are out, but Hashim Amla did have a net the day before the game, and will play if fit. Beuran Hendricks, Steyn's replacement, will only arrive on the morning of the match, so he's not an option, and South Africa will instead have to decide whether to play two allrounders, two spinners, or an extra batsman. One way of squeezing both Amla and Aiden Markram in could be to play Markram at No. 5 - a position he has recent experience in in domestic franchise cricket.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Hashim Amla, 3 Faf du Plessis (capt0, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 Aiden Markram, 6 David Miller, 7 JP Duminy, 8 Andile Phehlukwayo, 9 Chris Morris, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Imran Tahir
"Kedar Jadhav is back to full fitness," declared Kohli on the eve of the game, and he will likely fit snugly into India's lower-middle order. The other questions for India will be around whether to part the wristspinners or play them together, as well as who the third seamer position will go to. The top order, meanwhile, looks settled, with Rahul the strongest contender for No. 4 with form on his side.
The pitch spent most of the day before the game under covers, but it appeared to have had a close shave, with a brown - rather than green - tinge to it afterwards. That probably means that, as usual, this will be a high-scoring game. Indeed, in the last five matches played here, the average first innings total is 311, and the average winning first innings score 336. Including the aforementioned high-scorer between England and Pakistan here, the team setting a total has won three of the last five games at the Hampshire Bowl. There was rain around the day before the game, and while the forecast is a little better on match day, inclement weather could still play a role.
Quinton de Kock is clearly very important
to South Africa's fortunes with the bat. Eleven of his 14 hundreds have come in wins for South Africa, and four of them have been against India, against whom he averages 96.40 (the only team against which he has achieved a better ODI average is Bangladesh). Aakash Chopra
reckons a full length, outside off, could do for de Kock but If he gets away against the seamers, India could look to deploy Chahal early against him: in the 17 balls he has received from Chahal in ODIs, de Kock has been dismissed twice, averaging 5 at a strike rate of just 52.9 head-to-head.
South Africa might not find much joy against Bumrah or the spinners, but they could well look to go after Bhuvneshwar Kumar - if he plays. In four innings in which he's faced Bhuvneshwar, Markram has struck at 114.6, while du Plessis has really taken him on, with a strike rate of 130.8 and an average of 85 over six innings. Amla has scored a little more slowly at 72.4, but over an extended time of 12 innings, he's averaged 97. De Kock, meanwhile, has scored 144 runs off 140 balls he has faced from Bhuvneshwar in ODIs, and never been dismissed by him.
India could spin to win. South Africa's batting looks particularly vulnerable to spin. With the exception of du Plessis, who hasn't been dismissed by him yet, none of the other South Africa batsmen average more than 15 against Kuldeep, who has taken a wicket every 18 deliveries against South Africa, his best against any opposition in ODIs. The other half of the Indian spin duo, Chahal has been no less threatening either. Du Plessis has again managed to survive, but India will consider restricting his strike rate to 54.5 as job done. Phehlukwayo is the only other batsman in the South Africa squad who has a decent record against Chahal.
Stats and Trivia
This will be Jasprit Bumrah's 50th ODI. No bowler has taken more wickets than Bumrah (44) at the death since his ODI debut.
In his first World Cup as captain, it is worth reflecting on Kohli's journey to this point. In ODIs since 2015 World Cup, no player has scored more runs (4,306) than Kohli. Among players to have played a minimum of 10 innings since 2015 World Cup, Kohli's average of 78.3 is the best. Kohli has also scored 19 hundreds in this time, more than anyone else. He needs one more win to complete 50 in ODIs for India as captain.
Since 2012, however, India have beaten South Africa five times out of five at ICC events: at the World T20s in 2012 and 2014, at the 2013 and 2017 Champions Trophies, and at the World Cup in 2015.
South Africa have played in four World Cup semi-finals, losing all of them. But in four World Cup matches against India, they have won three times - including in 2011, when India were hosting.
"It's a bit of an advantage I would say, in terms of understanding how the games have gone and what the conditions have to offer." Virat Kohli
"If Dale hadn't gone to the IPL, who knows how it could have been today." Faf du Plessis ponders what might have been, after his senior bowler was ruled out of the tournament with injury