Cape Town – Plain sailing? Well, not quite. Rocky road? No, perhaps not that, either.
That’s probably the safest way to contemplate South Africa’s draw for the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup in England and Wales.
Confirmation of the tournament fixtures – all 10 teams will play each other, with the top four contesting the semi-finals – was imminent at the time of writing, but the cat was already out of the bag unofficially late on Wednesday.
This is the supposed nine-game, pre-knockout roster for SA, in order: May 30: v England, The Oval; June 2: v Bangladesh, The Oval; June 5: v India, Rose Bowl; June 10: v West Indies, Rose Bowl; June 15: v Afghanistan, Sophia Gardens; June 19: v New Zealand, Edgbaston; June 23: v Pakistan, Lord’s; June 28: v Sri Lanka, Chester-le-Street; July 6: v Australia, Old Trafford.
Here is my snap assessment of the advantages and drawbacks of the Proteas’ draw:
*Playing the event’s opening match, against hosts England:
There may be contrary views, but I’d say it’s beneficial. The pressure will be more heavily loaded on the host nation, burdened by home fervour and expectation for the glamour fixture. It will not have escaped many English fans’ minds that they blew out of their last home-staged World Cup (1999) ahead of the knockout phase, serving as a pretty early passion-killer to the tournament from a local atmosphere point of view in a country where getting everyone to focus squarely on cricket - football the great, near-perennial distraction - is difficult at the best of times.
*Getting two potentially toughest hurdles out of the way early
Again, there could be dissent on this … though isn’t it better that two of the biggest stinkers on paper are quickly out of the way for the Proteas? Playing England (currently ranked third in ODIs) first and India (top of the global pile) in the third outing should be viewed as a tantalising opportunity to hit the ground running for presently second-ranked SA. Even if one or both of the fixtures is surrendered, the positive spin for Faf du Plessis and company would be that easier tasks lie ahead, and fresh stability fairly quickly attainable …
*Rounding off the pre-knockout phase at Old Trafford
See also the first of the “cons” … but it isn’t the worst thing in the world that the Proteas’ possibly crucial final game in the league phase is scheduled for the Manchester venue. Old Trafford is one of the relatively few major grounds in the UK where South African sport a positive win record: two from three ODI appearances there, all against England.
*Australia being that closing fixture!
Look, if the pressure happens to still be on the Proteas when it comes to semis qualification at that juncture, maybe coming up against fierce southern foes and five-time CWC winners Australia isn’t the best thing. (The Aussies are consciously trying to present a new, less snarling image to the world, of course, but the word “chokers” is still highly likely to come from certain Aussie players’ lips in this one.) Who can forget how the Australians dramatically broke SA hearts twice in succession toward the business end of CWC 1999, on the same shores?
*First two games both being at The Oval
This is historically NOT a happy hunting ground for the Proteas in ODIs, and both England (tricky) and Bangladesh (OK, a little easier) have to be tackled there in games one and two. South Africa have lost five of eight ODIs at the “other” London venue … including their last match there, that grim eight-wicket thrashing from India in June 2017 which sealed their elimination from the Champions Trophy at the group phase.
*Playing at Lord’s at an advanced stage
Not such a biggie, I grant you that. South Africa visit the “home of cricket” for game seven of their pre-knockout nine, against Pakistan. A little surprisingly, perhaps, they have only played four prior ODIs there, but lost on three occasions (all to England), a trend that is in stark contrast to their historical relish for Test combat at the ground. They did break their 50-overs duck at the ground last time out, however … even if it was only a consolation, dead-rubber victory in the three-match bilateral series last year, just before the Champions Trophy. Pakistan are no slouches in English conditions, remember, as holders of the Champs Trophy and having outfoxed the Proteas in that very same 2017 tournament, albeit at Edgbaston.
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