Proteas: Dogfight starts for seam spots

Kagiso Rabada (Gallo Images)
Kagiso Rabada (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – England versus South Africa … that’s so seldom a “tune-up” for anything; it’s more often the real deal in fierce, time-honoured combat.

So there is a certain, almost unnerving unfamiliarity to that phenomenon as these foes begin a three-match one-day international series at Headingley, Leeds, on Wednesday (a day-nighter, 15:00 SA time).

While few prisoners are likely to be taken, it is also an inescapable fact that both protagonists would naturally prefer to peak at very advanced stages of the multinational ICC Champions Trophy, which begins in the same country almost as immediately as this roster ends.

So for once you may not see many too noticeably long faces amidst the losing ranks, once the highly useful, short exercise concludes at Lord’s on Monday (there is a middle game at Southampton’s Rose Bowl on Saturday).

That said, helping to maintain a strongly competitive edge in the next few days will be the likely desire of both the No 1-ranked Proteas and their hosts to settle – or perhaps all but so – on their intended first XIs for the Champs Trophy, an event where one lacklustre showing can be enough to cause or greatly threaten elimination.

I wrote several months ago that I fancied smooth-firing South Africa’s frontline batting line-up, especially, already looked very close to a done deal for the ICC event, and little has occurred more recently to warrant any alteration to that view.

It may require a particularly violent loss of form in some instance, or an untimely injury, for the Proteas to depart from a top seven of Amla, De Kock, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Duminy, Miller and the increasingly whirlwind-at-the-crease Morris as gate-man to the lower order.

Remember also that for all his ongoing Test problems, the oft-maligned JP Duminy remains a sprightly element and key balancer in the country’s limited-overs teams.

With evergreen Imran Tahir so firmly locked in as the premier strike-factor spinner, this mini-series may be most meaningful from a SA point of view in identifying which seamers from their broad and impressive arsenal on that front deserve Champs Trophy spots on the really red-letter dates.

Between Kagiso Rabada, a rejuvenated Morne Morkel, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius and Wayne Parnell, there may well be only three places up for grabs.

So the heat is on, and just one genuinely game-tilting display by any of these individuals against England – or, by contrast, a nought-for-75 untimely sort of off-day – could make the difference between bib-wearing dormancy and high-stakes activity in the broader tournament that follows.

There should be little margin for error from the fast men, and not just because England boast their own extrovert supply of stroke-players (most of them comfortable and assured in that capacity almost as swiftly as they have taken guard) like Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy, Alex Hales, Joe Root and Ben Stokes.

Also counting against the respective seam attacks is the expectation at this point of warm, often sunny and benign weather nationwide for roughly the duration of this series – batsmen tend to get productively into overdrive when clouds part in England and lateral movement is suddenly barely a factor.

Both sides sport sparkling recent ODI form: the Proteas are running seven from seven in bilateral series, whilst England have won five from six since losing 3-2 in South Africa in 2015/16, and prevailed in three in a row at home (Ireland, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).

For game one on Wednesday, the visitors will be bidding among other things to earn a maiden victory in the format at Headingley; South Africa have not managed this in three prior 50-overs visits.

The most recent, in 2008, and also a floodlit affair, saw a Kevin Pietersen-inspired England get home by 20 runs in the first of five scheduled contests.

Pietersen lashed 90 not out for man of the match, and an increasingly homesick and ragged Proteas outfit – having already achieved the primary objective of winning the Test series – eventually slipped to a 0-4 humiliation with one no-result.

England also beat SA at Headingley in May 1998 (a dead-rubber, the visitors already having won the first two of three Texaco Trophy clashes) whilst the other loss came in the Super Sixes stage of CWC 1999 to Australia.

That was where Steve Waugh pulled the match from the fire for the Aussies with his typically steely-jawed 120 not out after a catching reprieve from Herschelle Gibbs when the normally brilliant fielder let the ball slip from his hands in possibly premature elation at his “catch”.

*Rob Houwing will be attending the Champions Trophy shortly for Sport24. Follow him on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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