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Taunton tussle awaits as South Africa take on Lions in tour opener

Opportunity for meaningful practice for tourists at high-scoring venue

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Will Smeed and Tom Banton are part of the Somerset contingent who may play for the Lions at Taunton  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Will Smeed and Tom Banton are part of the Somerset contingent who may play for the Lions at Taunton  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

South Africa marked the start of their England tour by training in the Taunton sunshine on Monday afternoon, ahead of the first of two 50-over warm-up games against England Lions. They will play three ODIs, five T20Is (including two against Ireland in Bristol) and three Tests over the next two months, a return to old-school touring after two years of short series being squeezed into schedules following the Covid pandemic.
That means that they will have the opportunity to acclimatise rather than heading straight into a series, beginning their trip at a venue that played host to the highest English domestic T20 total of all-time on Saturday night. Rilee Rossouw, who starred as Somerset piled on 265 for 5 against Derbyshire, will only come into the mix for the T20I leg of the tour but South Africa's batters will be enticed by the combination of short boundaries and a flat, hard pitch.
The second tour match, at New Road in Worcester on Thursday, will carry List A status but despite the ECB's efforts, Tuesday's will not; South Africa were keen to give as many of members of their 17-man squad a chance as possible. "We can try and get all of our batters to bat and all of our bowlers to bowl," Mark Boucher, their head coach said, returning to the venue where he suffered a career-ending eye injury a decade ago.
"Hopefully, we get the proper headache of having everyone in the runs. The second game will be a proper game of cricket, classed as a List A game. It's going to be a good opportunity for us in the next couple of days to get everyone ready and also see where each individual is in these conditions."
Keshav Maharaj will stand in as captain for the 50-over leg of the tour, with Temba Bavuma missing through injury. "He's a massive loss for us," Boucher said, "but we have our back-up plans as well."
The England series is not part of the ODI Super League, in which South Africa have struggled, leaving them facing the possibility of having to play in next year's qualifiers in order to reach the World Cup in India. "There's maybe been a bit of a lack of form and continuity in certain series as well, where we've lost players to IPL," Boucher added. "Our plans are good. If we can just settle on that then the results will naturally come."
The ECB have picked a strong Lions squad for this series, with the usual blend of "next-best" and "future-best" players, according to Mo Bobat, England's performance director. "We cross over with the England ODIs so we had to be really mindful of which players we picked and also think about the county game," he told ESPNcricinfo. "You could easily decimate the Championship."
The Lions have hardly played since the start of the pandemic, with the demands of England's schedule often meaning they have required two enlarged squads simultaneously. When they did, in Australia last winter, the tour was badly affected by quarantine demands and inclement weather.
They are due to play South Africa in a red-ball game on August 9 and will tour Sri Lanka this winter if the political situation allows, but this week effectively marks the full return of the programme after what Bobat described as a "pretty difficult" couple of years.
"It's always quite tricky playing Lions cricket in the summer anyway because of the congested schedule, so getting to a point where we could put this game on and put a decent side out felt like quite an important thing. It's nice for us to feel like we're getting Lions cricket going again. It's a good opportunity this week for these guys to play some 50-over cricket against international opposition."
Tom Abell, the Somerset captain, will lead the side on his home ground and expects the Lions to replicate England's attacking style. "Getting to captain is a huge privilege and it's extra special being here at Taunton," Abell told ESPNcricinfo. "We've got a really good group. Hopefully we can come together and put South Africa under a bit of pressure.
"A lot of us haven't really experienced playing at this level against international opposition so the next couple of games are going to be amazing for us. What we want is for the group to feel free and be able to express themselves. We've all been playing T20 cricket and everyone's approach is pretty positive so it'll be about adapting to the 50-over format, but still trying to maintain that mindset: we want to have that positive, attacking intent at all times."
There are three capped players in the 14-man squad - Tom Banton, Ben Duckett and David Payne - and a mix of recent Under-19 graduates like Rehan Ahmed and Will Smeed, and older players with strong recent form such as Benny Howell and Jake Lintott. Not that many of them have played much 50-over cricket of late, since the Royal London Cup now clashes with the Hundred.
"I haven't played a 50-over game for God knows how long - a club game, probably," Smeed, who could make his List A debut on Thursday, told ESPNcricinfo. "It's not something that's been on my radar but it was a lovely call to get. They've got a lot of tall, quick bowlers which will be fun. It'll give me a good reflection as to where my game is at against that sort of bowler - you don't get loads of them in the Blast so this should be a good challenge."
England Lions squad: Tom Abell (captain), Rehan Ahmed, Tom Banton (wk), Sam Cook, Ben Duckett, Stephen Eskinazi, Sam Hain, Adam Hose, Benny Howell, Jake Lintott, David Payne, George Scrimshaw, Will Smeed
South Africa ODI squad: Keshav Maharaj (captain), Quinton de Kock (wk), Reeza Hendricks, Marco Jansen, Heinrich Klaasen, Janneman Malan, Aiden Markram, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Anrich Nortje, Tabraiz Shamsi, Rassie van der Dussen, Lizaad Williams, Khaya Zondo, Kyle Verreynne

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98