TELFORD VICE in Cape Town
THE last time South Africa won a bilateral one-day series in England the teams wore white and the ball was red.
It will be 19 years ago on Tuesday, and that May 1998 rubber marks the solitary time South Africa have taken a one-day series off England in England.
Only in Sri Lanka, where South Africa have won four of their 16 bilateral ODIs, have they had less success in those terms than in England, where their winning percentage is 26.67. Overall it’s 62.69%.
And here we are, on the cusp of another ODI series in England: Eoin Morgan and AB de Villiers will lead their teams at Headingley on Wednesday in the first of three matches.
One reason for the rarity of South Africa’s ODI wins in England could be ascribed to exactly that – rarity. They have played four bilateral series there in the format there. That adds up to fewer ODIs than South Africa have had in New Zealand, India, West Indies or Sri Lanka.
Another reason could be scheduling: only in ’98 were the ODIs played before the tests. Any cricketer who has toured England with a national team will know what a slog that can become, what with county games strewn before and between the serious stuff.
So, coming at the end of a long though invariably enjoyable tour in which the focus was primarily on the tests, the ODIs were often afterthoughts.
Not so in ’98, although South Africa’s ODI side had to shake off the winter’s cobwebs and come to terms with the conditions, factors that have been shorn of significance in an era in which cricket has become as generic as it is ubiquitous.
“Often you went on that tour a bit underdone because of the time of the year, and English conditions are completely different to ours,” Shaun Pollock, a stalwart of the ’98 campaign, said.
“In those days, in the tests and even the ODIs, there was always more in the surfaces for the bowlers. These days they tend to make them flat; they want plenty of runs.”
All that said, whatever happens at Headingley on Wednesday, and indeed at The Rose Bowl in Southampton on Saturday and at Lord’s next Monday, will be cast into the shadow of the looming Champions Trophy the instant the last ball is bowled.
South Africa have never reached the final of a World Cup, a Champions Trophy or a World T20, nevermind won it. What chance they would end the drought in England next month?
“As we’ve seen with all the other tournaments that we’ve gone to, we’ve got a team that can win if they play the right cricket on the day,” Pollock said.
“I think the semi-final is the big one. If we can get over that hurdle it will mean a lot and give the guys confidence.”
South Africa’s coach at the 2013 Champions Trophy, which was also played in England, was Gary Kirsten, whose team – in his own description – “choked” in their semi against the home side at The Oval.
Like millions of his compatriots, Kirsten hoped for a different outcome this time.
“The Protea ODI team have won 16 of their last 20 matches and are showing tremendous form going into the tournament,” Kirsten said.
“The balance of the team is as good as I have seen and they have a number of genuine match-winners in the batting and bowling line-up.
“The inclusion and performance of some key younger players will take pressure off the more senior players to perform at crucial times during the tournament.
“The team is settled and the coaching staff have incredible work ethic and good knowledge to assist the players.
“Why would we not be quietly confident.”
Kirsten phrased that last comment as a statement, not a question.
The questions, of course, will be asked on the field.