May 27, 2017
Start time 11am local (1000 GMT)
With due respect to their recent triumphs over West Indies and Ireland, Wednesday's emphatic win over South Africa, the No.1-ranked team in ODI cricket, was the result that Eoin Morgan's men needed to rubber-stamp their credentials as favourites for next week's Champions Trophy.
For months on end, almost since the moment of England's white-ball awakening after the 2015 World Cup, this is a team that has scotched all pre-conceptions - so much so that even the captain of one of the few teams to have got the better of them in recent times, India's Virat Kohli, was yesterday forced to concede that England have "no weaknesses" going into a tournament that surely counts as their most outstanding opportunity to lift that elusive 50-over global trophy.
Well, they have perhaps one weakness. Despite being passed fit to play at the Ageas Bowl following a scan on his knee, the sight of Ben Stokes, the team's talismanic allrounder, limping from the pitch during the Headingley contest was enough to make both the management's and marketing men's blood run cold.
Stokes, the newly-crowned MVP in his maiden IPL season, is utterly fundamental to the balance of England's first-choice XI. With his tub-thumping presence in England's top six, England have the luxury of including two spinners and four genuine quicks in what is surely the most versatile (if not necessarily the most incisive) attack in the competition. Without him, the choices become more stark - sacrifice a spinner to shore up the batting firepower (and Jonny Bairstow, to be fair, is just gagging to get involved), or trust the occasionally mercurial Moeen Ali to front up with bat as well as ball, as he did to fine effect with a match-turning 77 from 51 balls in the opening ODI.
Mind you, these are not the sorts of worries that England are used to addressing on the eve of a global tournament. To cast one's mind back to the horrors of the 2015 World Cup, for instance, is to be reminded of an era when Stokes' temperament wasn't trusted, when Gary Ballance's ballast at No.3 was preferred to the long-levered walloping of Alex Hales, and when Jos Buttler was treated as an orthodox wicketkeeping No.7, rather than a order-roving deliverer of batting hellfire.
None of this is to say that England are either shoo-ins for the Champions Trophy, or even out of sight in this still-to-be-settled three-match series against South Africa. But the underlying truth of their 72-run win in Wednesday's opening match is that England didn't actually play to their absolute potential, but still rolled out handsome winners - thanks as much to South Africa's exhaustion in the closing overs of the run-chase, as much as anything else. As Kohli succinctly put it, "for them it's all about attack, throughout the 50 overs, which is exciting for the fans and challenging for the opposition."
As for South Africa, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in the midst of their opening defeat. Hashim Amla showed enduring form at the top of the order, Faf du Plessis played a strong hand as well, while AB de Villiers showed glimpses of his true self before his 45 from 38 balls was undermined by wickets tumbling at the other end.
But they'll need their bowlers to regroup quickly if they are to restore their challenge in this series - not least the legspinner Imran Tahir, whose nine wicketless overs were milked for 68 runs at Headingley, a rare toothless day for one of his side's most enduring one-day weapons.
Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada are two other players to factor into South Africa's challenge. Both are too good to fail for long, as de Kock in particular showed during England's last ODI campaign against South Africa in February 2016, when his twin centuries helped turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win.
It's all food for thought as two of the best ODI teams in the world fine-tune their preparations. But, both sides know, there's a far bigger prize than the Royal London trophy up for grabs in the coming weeks.
England WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LWLWL
In the spotlight
There's surely no pressure being exerted from the England management, who know full well what Jason Roy is capable of, but there's little doubt either that he is stuck in a bit of a fallow patch of form at present. His maiden IPL stint with Gujarat Lions was a disappointment - just three appearances and a top score of 31 - and following scores of 0 and 20 against Ireland, he chose to return to Royal London Cup duty with Surrey, rather than head back out to the nets in India. His game remains in good working order - one scorching straight drive off Tim Murtagh at Lord's was a reminder of how effortlessly powerful his game can be. But he could do with a score going into the Champions Trophy.
Roy, however, wasn't the only stroke-playing international batsman to suffer a rough time at this year's IPL. AB de Villiers fell a long way short of the standards that he expects of himself, and that his adoring fans at Bangalore Royal Challengers expect of him too. He produced flashes of his most brilliant self - not least in making 89 not out from 46 balls against Kings' XI Punjab - but more often than not he appeared weighed down by the collective malfunction of RCB's storied batting line-up. He looked a touch jaded in the Headingley ODI, if truth be told. And, shock horror, he even produced a fumble in the outfield. South Africa desperately need him to build on the relative success of his cameo in the first ODI.
Stokes was declared fit to play in the second ODI after taking a full part in England's training on Friday. But nevertheless, having bowled just two overs in Wednesday's opening rubber, and with a heavy IPL workload behind him, there must have been a temptation to protect such a talismanic figure with less than a week to go until the Champions Trophy opener. Jonny Bairstow is in the form to deputise supremely with the bat, even Stokes' absence would have left England's bowling options a touch stretched. David Willey was the obvious addition to the fast-bowling ranks.
England: (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 Mark Wood
Few reasons for wholesale changes in South Africa's line-up, despite the eventual size of their defeat at Headingley. It's a case of improving what they've got, rather than reinforcing what they lacked. However, there may be a temptation to find room for Morne Morkel and his aggressive line of attack in light of the relative success that the short ball had against England's top-order - Joe Root, for one, fell victim to a top-edged bouncer from Andile Phehlukwayo.
South Africa: (probable) 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Hashim Amla, 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 JP Duminy, 6 David Miller, 7 Wayne Parnell, 8 Chris Morris, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Andile Phehlukwayo/Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
Pitch and conditions
The weather is gleaming and runs are all but guaranteed on a surface that rarely fails to offer plenty for the bat. Only once in the last seven ODIs at the Ageas Bowl, dating back to 2012, has the side batting first made less than 287, while New Zealand racked up a hefty 359 for 3 back in June 2013, thanks to Martin Guptill's 189 not out.
Stats and trivia
- On the last 10 occasions that they have batted first in ODIs, England have racked up a formidable run of totals: 324 for 7, 444 for 3, 302 for 9, 309 for 8, 350 for 7, 321 for 8, 296 for 6, 328, 328 for 6 and 339 for 6. An average figure of 334 for 7.
- Amla needs another 47 runs to reach 7000 in ODIs. He has 12 innings in which to get there ahead of Virat Kohli and continue his record of being fastest to 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000 and 6000.
- Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali both need four more wickets to reach 50 in ODIs.
""You get guys batting at 4 and 5 coming late in the game and getting a hundred, that's why Morgan's innings was a game-changer."
Hashim Amla on Eoin Morgan's century
"Batting at No. 7 is one of the hardest jobs going because you don't know whether to shoot or not. [Moeen] was very calm and composed in what he did, gave himself some time at the crease and was able to take the game to South Africa at the end."
England captain Morgan praises Moeen Ali's game-turning innings at Headingley
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket