Champions Trophy: England's misfiring middle order must finally bridge gap
Alastair Cook hopes batsmen can inspire England win over South Africa and then lead side to first 50-over ICC title
If South Africa are the chokers, it is difficult to make out a case for England as models of hard-nosed, cool-as-cucumber tournament play. They probably deserve each other and in many ways the semi-final in which the sides are opposed today would have been better served as a final since someone would have had to fall at the last.
England have never won an ICC 50-over competition in 16 previous attempts, 10 World Cups and six Champions Trophies. Over a period of 38 years there have been, in all, four appearances in finals and three in semi-finals but none of the seven captains concerned has gone on to hoist aloft the silverware.
At least South Africa, for all their well-chronicled reversals of fortune, have won one of the things. Indeed, theirs was the first name on the Champions Trophy in 1998 when it was still officially the Wills International Cup. On the way to that they beat what amounted to a reserve England side containing Ashley Giles, now the team's limited-overs coach.
Both sides will have taken heart from their experiences in this competition. South Africa held their nerve, just, to see off West Indies in their final tied group match, though had Kieron Pollard chosen to defend instead of essaying a booming drive which produced a catch to third man from what proved to be the last ball of the match it might have been different.
England had to keep calm against New Zealand last Sunday. What looked as though it would be a straightforward win – and was ultimately – turned into a much tenser contest as the overs went by. It tested Alastair Cook as captain as never before, something he readily conceded.
"Well, I won't lie to you, I didn't really enjoy Cardiff, the last 10 overs," he said. "That was quite as stressful or tense a time as I think I've had since I've been captain.
"I felt Cardiff was a good test to see where we were as a side in terms of having to deliver under pressure, having to win the game to go through pretty much. We knew that was the case, and when it's such a shortened game, you can get taken away from what your principles are, what you're meant to be doing."
England have won two of their three matches without their aggressively innovative middle order yet turning many cartwheels. Their strategy is safe and risky at the same time.
With two new balls from the top of the innings , England are deliberately circumspect in the initial, mandatory powerplay regardless of fielding restrictions, aiming for fireworks at the end.
It worked to a limited degree against Australia, when they won comfortably, spectacularly when it needed to against Sri Lanka, when they lost, and barely at all against New Zealand, when their shortened innings tailed off badly.
Sooner or later, preferably now, England have to expect two of Ravi Bopara, Jos Buttler and especially the underperforming Eoin Morgan to make a match-turning contribution. But there is no guaranteed way and, despite the carping, England may be justified in keeping it tight at the top, as it were.
"I think the top order have done their job pretty well so far," said Cook. "We've built solid platforms to go on and get big scores. There's always going to be a little bit of hit or miss when you've got to go in and strike from early.
"But they're sensational players at doing that. And then we've seen Morgs over the years, obviously Jos at Trent Bridge and Ravi here at The Oval, you only need one of them to come off to get a big total, to put the icing on the cake.
"Hopefully, with this game and another big game coming after that, we can have two of them doing it and getting an above-par score."
Only once before have the countries met at this late a stage of an ICC event and it led to things changing for ever. Their semi-final in the 1992 World Cup is infamous for a brief rain break which meant that South Africa, instead of needing 22 runs from 13 balls, needed 21 from one (not that it did England much good since they lost the subsequent final to Pakistan).
It led to the birth of the Duckworth-Lewis system which may not be perfect but is statistically beyond reproach. For South Africa it was the first in a long catalogue of tournament misfortune.
The Proteas are already minus several of their grandees but have managed well without Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. England have missed the middle-order batting of the Kevin Pietersen of four or five years ago, not the more recent vintage.
In addition they are likely to be without Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan. Swann trained today but England are not minded to take any risks, Bresnan was in Yorkshire with his wife, awaiting the birth of their overdue first child. In replacing them with James Tredwell and Steve Finn they will be little worse, if at all.
AB de Villiers, South Africa's captain, thought home support might put England under more pressure, Cook suspected the opposite and there is no doubt a full house at The Oval will be thunderously behind the home team.
Then again, no host nation has yet won the Champions Trophy, another precedent that should not worry England in trying to put a little something in a trophy cabinet that has remained bare for nearly four decades.
The Oval details
England A N Cook (capt), I R Bell, I J L Trott, J E Root, E J G Morgan, R S Bopara, J C Buttler (wkt), S T Finn, S C J Broad, J C Tredwell, J M Anderson.
South Africa C A Ingram, H M Amla, F du Plessis, A B de Villiers (capt; wkt), J P Duminy, D A Miller, R McLaren, R J Peterson, C H Morris, D W Steyn, L L Tsotsobe.
Umpires K Dharmasena (S Lanka) & R Tucker (Aus).
Television Sky Sports 1, 10am-7pm
Weather Conditions will remain dry and pleasantly warm, with intermittent sunshine early in the afternoon. Max temp: 24C.
Odds England 4-5; Sth Africa Evens
Semi-final 2: India v Sri Lanka; Thursday, Cardiff, 10.30am. TV: Sky Sports 1, 10am-7pm
Final Sunday, Edgbaston, 10.30am. TV: Sky Sports 1, 10am-7pm
Clarke targets Somerset return
The Australia captain, Michael Clarke, will remain in London while two Ashes team-mates join the A squad – Phil Hughes and Matthew Wade – for their match against Gloucestershire in Bristol this week.
Clarke is increasingly hopeful that he will be fully recovered from the back problem that ruled him out of the Champions Trophy in time for the start of the Ashes at Trent Bridge next month, and is hoping to return in Australia's match against Somerset at Taunton starting tomorrow week.
He will stay in the capital until the Ashes squad assembles next Monday – along with James Faulkner, Mitchell Starc, Shane Watson, Chris Rogers and David Warner.
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