Against all logic, expectation and form, England reached the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy last night. With a blazing panache that defied their critics and probably surprised themselves they defeated South Africa by 22 runs.
Their total of 323 for 8 proved too much for the hosts and hot favourites, who will again face accusations of choking. On this occasion the charges will be unfounded. They were beaten by a side who had promised – amid a plethora of doubters and a legion of naysayers – that they were capable of something like this and have rediscovered their self-belief just in time.
Scant consolation though it will be to the losers, who have been eliminated from the competition, there could hardly have been a more convincing advertisement for the 50-over game. England's innings contained three compelling batting displays, but at its heart was a magnificent 98 from Owais Shah that contained six sixes. England's total of 12 sixes was the most they have ever struck in a limited-overs innings.
By contrast, Graeme Smith played almost a lone hand for South Africa. His 141 was a monument of concentration and fortitude, and for long periods England must have feared that they would be confounded by this familiar foe. Smith, however, could find nobody to accompany him for long enough – the next highest score was 36 by A B de Villiers – and when he was caught in a forlorn effort to salvage something for his team, the game was already up.
Although England have never made as many in an innings against South Africa and although a higher target has been chased only three times in day-night matches, they knew they needed every single run. Shah was splendid and thoroughly deserved a hundred. Being Shah, of course, he had brought along a copybook to blot, which he duly did when he dropped a sitter off Smith when South Africa's captain was 80. It put the hearts in English mouths for a while longer.
But Shah was magnificent at the crease. He plundered the bowling mercilessly and constantly peppered the grassy banks here. He shared a third-wicket partnership of 163 in 157 balls with Paul Collingwood and their attacking zest opened the way for Eoin Morgan to play an engagingly destructive innings of 67 from 34 balls. It was nothing like either the England or the Shah of recent weeks.
This was an utterly different figure from the jittery, diffident player who stumbled his way through the one-day series in England, making 160 runs in seven innings and thinking of ever increasingly sloppy ways of getting out and running out his colleagues.
Shah, make no mistake, was playing for his career in the Champions Trophy. From the moment he calmly flicked a six over square leg for his second scoring shot, Shah launched himself at the South Africans.
His favoured area was the leg side, aimed at wherever the ball was pitched. He waltzed down the pitch, fetched the ball from outside off stump and was relentless. South Africa probably expected to be given an element of control by their spinners, especially at a ground which has just come out of its winter hibernation and has produced a succession of slow, turning pitches in this tournament so far.
But Shah's exhilarating turn meant that Smith constantly had to rotate his bowlers to try to quell the flow.
If Collingwood was the quieter of the two (but not by much) he constantly encouraged his colleague and it was the highest stand by an England pair for two years. Shah was denied a hundred when he got into a tangle trying to nudge a single, got an inside edge on to his pads and was caught.
England were debilitated in the field because Morgan had to keep wicket in place of Matt Prior who fell victim to a virus. He acquitted himself wonderfully and executed an athletic run-out from the ground to dismiss Albie Morkel who was just beginning to unleash some big shots.
But only Smith stood defiant, crunching 16 fours. By the end he was batting on one leg but Strauss, sensing he had to be hard-nosed, denied him a runner. Herschelle Gibbs, De Villiers and J P Duminy all showed flashes but they were strangled by England's endeavours in the field. James Anderson gave little but Collingwood bowled a key spell in the middle overs, as eventually did Graeme Swann. When England needed wickets they got them and it brought them victory.
England v South Africa: Centurion scoreboard
England won toss
*A J Strauss c Boucher b Parnell......... 25
37 balls 5 fours
J L Denly c Duminy b Kallis......... 21
25 balls 3 fours
O A Shah c Boucher b Botha......... 98
89 balls 5 fours 6 sixes
P D Collingwood b Parnell......... 82
94 balls 6 fours 1 six
†E J G Morgan c Smith b Steyn......... 67
34 balls 4 fours 5 sixes
L J Wright run out (Parnell)......... 8
7 balls 1 four
R S Bopara c Morkel b Botha......... 1
S C J Broad b Parnell......... 0
G P Swann not out......... 8
9 balls 1 four
J M Anderson not out......... 2
Extras (lb 5, w 5, nb 1)......... 11
Total (8 wkts, 50 overs)......... 323
Fall: 1-48 (Denly), 2-59 (Strauss), 3-222 (Shah), 4-262 (Collingwood), 5-291 (Wright), 6-295 (Bopara), 7-297 (Broad), 8-320 (Morgan).
Did not bat: G Onions.
Bowling: D Steyn 10-0-59-1 (w1) (5-0-19-0, 2-0-13-0, 2-0-23-0, 1-0-4-1), W Parnell 10-2-60-3 (3-0-19-0, 3-2-1-1, 4-0-40-2), J Kallis 3-0-14-1 (w1) (one spell), A Morkel 6-0-45-0 (w1, nb1) (2-0-17-0, 2-0-14-0, 2-0-14-0), R van der Merwe 9-0-67-0 (w2) (3-0-17-0, 1-0-4-0, 4-0-37-0, 1-0-9-0), J Botha 9-0-56-2 (4-0-20-0, 1-0-11-0, 2-0-13-0, 2-0-12-2), J Duminy 3-0-17-0 (one spell).
Progress: 50 11.2 overs; 100 21.2 overs; 150 29.2 overs; 200 34.3 overs; 250 41.6 overs; 300 47.3 overs. Shah 50: 63 balls, 4 fours, 1 six; Collingwood 50: 56 balls, 3 fours, 1 six; Morgan 50: 26 balls, 4 fours, 3 sixes.
*G C Smith c Shah b Broad......... 141
134 balls 16 fours
H H Gibbs c Wright b Anderson......... 22
26 balls 3 fours 1 six
J H Kallis c Denly b Broad......... 12
16 balls 1 four
A B de Villiers c Denly b Collingwood......... 36
41 balls 4 fours
J P Duminy b Swann......... 24
33 balls 1 four
†M V Boucher b Anderson......... 8
10 balls 1 four
J A Morkel run out (Morgan)......... 17
14 balls 1 four 1 six
J Botha c Onions b Broad......... 0
R E van der Merwe b Anderson......... 0
W D Parnell not out......... 10
D W Steyn not out......... 17
13 balls 2 fours
Extras (lb 8, w 5, nb 1)......... 14
Total (9 wkts, 50 overs)......... 301
Fall: 1-42 (Gibbs), 2-64 (Kallis), 3-142 (de Villiers), 4-206 (Duminy), 5-230 (Boucher), 6-255 (Morkel), 7-255 (Botha), 8-263 (van der Merwe), 9-274 (Smith).
Bowling: J Anderson 10-0-42-3 (w3nb1) (6-0-25-1, 1-0-3-1, 3-0-14-1), G Onions 7-0-52-0 (3-0-25-0, 3-0-14-0, 1-0-13-0), S Broad 10-0-67-3 (w1) (5-0-22-1, 1-0-10-0, 4-0-35-2), L Wright 5-0-31-0 (one spell), P Collingwood 10-0-58-1 (8-0-39-1, 2-0-19-0), G Swann 8-0-43-1 (5-0-33-0, 2-0-6-1, 1-0-4-0).
Progress: 50 8.4 overs; 100 18.5 overs; 150 27.4 overs; 200 35.3 overs; 250 42.5 overs; 300 50 overs. Smith 50: 54 balls, 7 fours; 100: 104 balls, 10 fours.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) & A L Hill (NZ)
TV replay umpire : B F Bowden (NZ)
Match referee: Asad Rauf (Pak).
England win by 22 runs.
Owais Shah's and Paul Collingwood's partnership was the highest stand by an England pair for two years