Remember when ODI cricket was the priority? For England, at least, that was the case from May 2015 until the World Cup success of 2019. Every advantage, in selection and scheduling, was given to the 50-over format as England pursued their goal.
Those days are gone. And, with two T20 World Cups scheduled within the next 24 months, it may be a while until they return.
For that reason, it is two sides shorn of several of their stars which meet in this ODI series. For England, Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Sam Curran are rested, providing opportunities for some of those who could feature in three years’ time. There are still eight men who played in the World Cup final in their squad, though.
South Africa aren’t at full strength, either. But then they never are. The state of the economy – both cricketing and nationally – renders it enduringly hard for them to retain the services of their best players, but combine that with illness (there has been an outbreak of Covid-19 around the squad) and the need to fulfil transformation targets, they probably go into this series as underdogs.
And that’s a bigger statement than it sounds. England have only once (at the end of 2009) won a bilateral ODI series in South Africa. England have also lost three of their four most recent ODIs and, in September, lost their first ODI series (omitting one-off matches) anywhere since the start of 2017 and their first at home since 2015.
Perhaps the most notable absence from the South Africa squad is Kagiso Rabada, who is injured. Pite van Biljon, Bjorn Fortuin and Reeza Hendricks have all been released to play four-day cricket. South Africa have also allowed Faf du Plessis, their most experienced player and highest ODI run-scorer of those currently available, to leave the squad. Bearing in mind he has the fitness of a superhero and has played around 15 hours of cricket in the last month, we can probably take the explanation of ‘rest’ with a pinch of salt. Instead, it seems younger players will be given an opportunity to claim a place in the side in the knowledge that du Plessis is now 36 and far from certain to make the next World Cup.
For both teams, then, the focus is on the future as much as the present. England will be hoping to find a ‘new’ Liam Plunkett – some would argue there’s not much wrong with the ‘old’ one – with Olly Stone’s pace and Reece Topley’s left-arm angle and height potentially intriguing options.
And while Eoin Morgan, England’s captain, insisted everyone involved was a viable option for selection for that next 50-over World Cup, there may be just a little doubt over whether Chris Woakes, now aged 31, and Moeen Ali, now aged 33, are going to last until 2023. Morgan, too, is 34 now and admitted that could be a factor.
“We don’t know what our bodies will be like in two or three years’ time,” he said. “If 50-over cricket is going to continue to replicate 20-over cricket and the scores and intensity of the game continue to get higher, is that going to place more physical demand on every player? And if so, is a 36 or 37-year-old guy going to be able to fulfil the high-intensity standard of a World Cup?
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
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In the spotlight
You could almost see Quinton de Kock ageing by the moment during the T20I series. As if opening the batting against Archer at al. wasn’t demanding enough (it was actually Chris Jordan who dismissed him in all three games), he is also required to lead his side with the bat and remain on top of his game with the gloves. There is a huge amount demanded of de Kock and there are times – not least with the gloves; remember the missed run-out of Dawid Malan in the final T20I? – when it looks as if he is stooping under the weight of his burden.
England’s strength in depth, at the top of the order in particular, is remarkable. But it does demand some careful management. At present, Jason Roy looks out of form and is enduring a bit of a grim run: his 10 most recent international innings (across T20I and ODI cricket) has earned him three ducks, three other single figure scores and a top score of just 24. There’s little doubt the England management – and the England captain, in particular – will give Roy every chance of regaining his form; his long-term record remains outstanding and in his selfless aggression he has embodied many of the finer qualities of this team. But when you have likes of Tom Banton, Alex Hales, Dawid Malan and Ben Duckett breathing down your neck, the requirement to deliver is never ending.
Both Andile Phehlukwayo and David Miller have rejoined the squad, though they will need to undergo fitness tests to determine their availability for the first ODI. If they are fit – and the whispers about Phehlukwayo are encouraging – they should slot straight in. Janneman Malan is expected to open with Quinton de Kock after his strong performances against Australia and Jon-Jon Smuts and Kyle Verreynne will get opportunities in du Plessis’ absence. South Africa could have as many as four spin options if Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi, Smuts and George Linde all play, though seamer Junior Dala could well take the new ball and fulfil the requirement for three Black players alongside Lungi Ngidi and Phehlukwayo.
South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (capt, wk), 2 Janneman Malan, 3 Jon-Jon Smuts, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 Kyle Verreynne, 6 David Miller/Heinrich Klaasen, 7 Andile Phehlukwayo/George Linde, 8 Junior Dala/Keshav Maharaj, 9 Lungi Ngidi, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
With no Stokes or Sam Curran, England do not quite have the all-round depth that has served them so well in recent times. For that reason, they may be inclined to include Tom Curran, despite his modest T20I series, or Moeen Ali as a second spin option at No. 7. A final decision will be made after a look at the wicket. Mark Wood and Olly Stone are set to provide a sharp pace attack with Sam Billings having earned himself a run in the middle order after an impressive display against Australia.
England (possible): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jonny Bairstow, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Sam Billings, 7 Moeen Ali/Tom Curran, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Olly Stone