England catch fire
Astonishing fielding by Stokes and Archer’s lethal bowling bamboozle South Africa as tournament opens with a bang
England lost a wicket to the second ball of their World Cup campaign but never their nerve. A new, resilient England came through the fire to defeat South Africa by 104 runs and will be all the stronger for it. They can even start to enjoy this tournament after making such an authoritative opening statement.
The icing on top of this satisfying cake was the catch by Ben Stokes. No boundary catch could be more sensational than the one when Stokes ran to his left and, finding the ball too high for him to reach with both hands, leapt and went for it with his right. Stokes tumbled and rolled several yards towards the boundary, such was the force behind Andile Phehlukwayo’s slog-sweep.
Fielding has seldom excited people in England but Stokes’ catch was so spectacular that anyone who saw it would be animated to try it, on a cricket ground, in a gym or park, or at any rate in the imagination. If fielding comes to be enjoyed in England as never before, that will be a legacy in itself from this World Cup.
Stokes also stretched himself to make his highest one-day international score – 89 off 79 balls – since the Bristol nightclub incident in September 2017, steering England to a total that might have been below expectations but was above par on a spongy pitch made soft by recent rain. It was easy-paced for batting, but hard to hit the ball other than in the air.
Stokes was not alone in rising to this occasion. Jason Roy looked an almost complete batsman as he saw off the initial threat of Imran Tahir, after South Africa’s wrist-spinner had dismissed Jonny Bairstow with his second ball, not just the punisher of pace that Roy has always been. There was such control in Roy’s batting, even though England will not play at his home ground again, that it bodes well for England in the rest of this tournament.
When England bowled, the chances of Stuart Broad taking the new red ball in a Test for England this summer plummeted. Nobody, surely, except Jofra Archer should be sharing it with James Anderson in the Ashes. Archer was everything a fast bowler should be – fast,
‘Archer’s bowling display announced him as possibly a once-in-generation fast bowler’
bouncy, tight of line, and equipped with a threatening bouncer which took two wickets as well as hitting Hashim Amla’s helmet so hard that he had to be withdrawn from Archer’s firing line, only to return when the game was almost up.
Archer was easily the quickest bowler on either side – and it would have taken a young Dale Steyn to match him, not the injured 35-yearold edition. Archer’s four-over spell against Pakistan at the Oval had announced him as a World Cup certainty, but his five-over opening spell against South Africa – by the end of which England were psychologically on top – announced him as something more, quite possibly a once-in-a-generation fast bowler. Not that Archer should be classified as that alone, for a back-foot cover drive in his three-ball innings was that of an all-rounder.
Eoin Morgan shone, too. England’s captain did not risk his cracked finger by fielding in the slips but, after Roy and Joe Root were out in the space of four balls, he deduced this was not the normally hard Oval surface for blasting and blazing. After losing the toss, and the right to bowl first, Morgan also outmanoeuvred his opposite number, Faf du Plessis.
The new South Africa have a bowling attack that is multiracial and multifaceted: as England’s innings wore on, they switched adroitly to slower balls that “sat” in the pitch and bounced abnormally if the ball landed on its seam. But Du Plessis was guilty of the traditional failing of South African captains in being too defensive: he was excellent at containment, and was ready to field at long-off or long-on at both ends, and took an exceptional, if not Stokes-class catch.
However, he did not strike when the iron was hot and England were nervy: a gully to go with two slips for Roy and Root when cover-driving on the up was too risky, could have broken England’s back.
The eventual three-figure margin did not reveal how nip-and-tuck the match was – when Jonny Bairstow was dismissed by Tahir’s leg-break to the crowd’s shock, when England kept losing batsmen well set, when they entered the last eight overs of their innings without Jos Buttler left to plunder them, and when South Africa reached 129 officially for the loss of two wickets.
Nobody made a hundred but at least two century stands were recorded for England, 106 by Roy and Root, the same again by Morgan and Stokes.
Otherwise, South Africa’s fielding – a traditional discipline for them – helped to keep the lid on, but they were to be outplayed in that department, too.
Archer’s bounce was too steep for Aiden Markram’s cover-drive and du Plessis’ hook, a swirling topedge well caught at long-leg. Three wickets in the first 10 overs usually leads to victory and Archer by himself took two and made Amla retire hurt.
Quinton de Kock took the attack to England, only to shovel to fine leg a ball always going down leg side; JP Duminy, who should not have played ahead of David Miller, gave his wicket away; and England’s out-cricket did the rest.
Not a perfect performance, but an almost perfect response to the tension of an opening game and that initial shock.
England’s Ben Stokes takes a sensational catch close to the boundary