England could be a wounded animal

2011-03-05 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Ever more polished and clinical, while still suggesting they’ve got an extra gear unused, the Proteas take on their old adversaries, England, at a seemingly perfect time for them in the World Cup tomorrow.

The contrast between the two Group B sides could not be more apparent at present, with Graeme Smith’s side coming off a highly professional slaughter of the Netherlands on Thursday and footsore England ridiculed back home for losing to similar minnows Ireland just a day earlier.

South Africa were so ruthless at Mohali that they achieved the fourth-highest margin of victory by runs in World Cup history, winning by 231. In sixth position lies their 221-run triumph over the same team at the previous tournament in the Caribbean four years ago, when Herschelle Gibbs had given Daan van Bunge his famous bam-bam treatment.

This time AB de Villiers, ably backed up by unflappable fellow-centurion Hashim Amla, led the batting carnage with a scorching 134 off 98 balls to take his tournament tally of runs to 241 from two innings, with just one dismissal, by run-out.

And then the Proteas again put up a cohesive showing in the field, with several of their bowlers demonstrating good purpose and guile and the only catching howler of note when Morne Morkel dropped a dolly.

His team-mates respectfully turned their heads away as they tried to stifle their disbelieving giggles, but you could also be sure they would later have comforted the mortified paceman.

Certainly the South Africans are not showing anything like the ramshackle incompetence England are presently experiencing as a fielding combo: routine bloopers in that department went a long way to explaining their shock defeat to the Irish, although that is not the full extent of their problems.

The Proteas again put admirable faith in a battery of spinners against the Dutch, even if senior tweaker Johan Botha sitting out this one came as a bit of a surprise — ditto the fact that Lonwabo Tsotsobe did not get a recall to beef up the seam department.

Instead Morne van Wyk bolstered the depth of the batting order — not that it was really needed on the day — and later kept wicket with some aplomb because De Villiers was reportedly feeling a back niggle.

Interesting thought: with De Villiers so prolific and treasured as the No. 4 batsman, are the Proteas possibly working toward Van Wyk easing his burden by wearing the gloves rather more often?

At least they cannot be accused, thus far, of any semblance of rigid inflexibility in their battle plans, often a feature of failed previous World Cups by South Africa. They are certainly keeping us all guessing pretty regularly as to what their next moves will be, and that is no bad thing.

One small worry is that Jacques Kallis, trying to shake off rust, failed again at the crease, but that probably only means he is due to come off against England and their desperately expensive attack.

Typical of the man, however, he only redoubled his determination to chip in usefully with the ball, and did so with the first two Dutch scalps, operating as the Proteas’ lively first-change.

Once again the leg-spinner, Imran Tahir, came very much to the fore, his three wickets routing the Netherlands tail as he showed all the tricks in his repertoire … including his excellent faster, flatter ball.

He has now grabbed 7/60 at the tournament at a superlative average of 8,57, which only highlights how valuable he has been as a new, genuinely attacking factor in the South African bowling arsenal.

The Proteas’ net run rate has blossomed to a robust +2.76 and they sit handsomely atop the Group B table.

One thing they must be wary about is the possibility of England emerging on Sunday like a wounded animal … they have done this before against South Africa at ODI level, when the odds have seemed stacked against them.

Led by captain Andrew Strauss and with the likes of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell, their batting has been pretty decent thus far, and if they can rectify the shambolic state of their other departments, they could show that the supposed corpse retains a pulse.

But there is also a powerful sense that many of their players are burned out and have irritable “cabin fever” after being together for some four months during the Ashes campaign in Australia and then moving virtually straight to the subcontinent for the demands of the World Cup.

I know whose boots I would rather be in at Chennai …

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