TELFORD VICE in Cape Town
IT isn’t often that training sessions rival matches for attention, but England’s practice in Southampton on Friday – ahead of the second one-day international against South Africa at The Rose Bowl on Saturday – was one of those times.
The focus was on Ben Stokes, the fiery allrounder who bowled only two overs at Headingley on Wednesday because of a knee problem. Stokes had surgery on the same knee last year to repair torn cartilage.
Much hand-wringing and what-iffing has ensued, as would seem to be the English way, since Stokes limped off.
The news that he had been cleared to take full part in Friday’s session made bigger headlines than some countries’ elections, and the subsequent confirmation that he is available for selection play on Saturday probably bumped Donald Trump off a few front pages.
Not that Stokes’ fitness seems of immediate import, what with England surging to a handsome 72-run win on Wednesday.
Another victory for them on Saturday would decide the issue and put unwanted pressure on the visitors ahead of next month’s Champions Trophy in England.
South Africa’s No. 1 ranking, and the fact that they arrived in England having lost only two of their previous 16 ODIs, will shrink into the shadow cast by a series loss.
No injuries have been reported from their dressingroom, but Wednesday’s woes went further than skin deep.
South Africa’s bowling lacked snap, their fielding failed to crackle, and their batting popped in all the wrong ways.
They played mushy cricket, and England had them for breakfast.
Two half-centuries – by Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis – but no centuries and only one century stand is not going to win many matches, and successful attacks need more than one bowler – Chris Morris – firing on all cylinders.
All of which added up to the feeling that South Africa lost the match more than England won it, Eoin Morgan’s 107 and Moeen Ali’s unbeaten 77 notwithstanding.
“That’s the best way we could have started; it was a complete performance,” Morgan said.
“Moeen has one of the hardest jobs batting at seven and he was very calm and composed before taking the game to them.”
Depth, in batting as well as bowling, has long been a key strength for South Africa – they have earned a reputation for never being beaten until the scorers confirm the result.
But that trademark nuggetyness was conspicuous by its absence on Wednesday.
It will need to be rediscovered if the series is to be levelled on Saturday.
And another thing – can someone hang a stopwatch around AB de Villiers’ neck?
South Africa need their captain.
They also need their most destructive batsman.
They don’t need him banned for not herding his bowlers through their overs quickly enough, as will happen if De Villiers falls foul of the minimum over-rate again.
That umpires and referees should have more important matters to excite them than this pettiness is another argument for another day.
Right now, De Villiers’ shoddy time-keeping is the problem that needs solving.