A combination of Jos Buttler’s brilliance and the Bloemfontein weather ensured England started their five-match one-day series against South Africa on a winning note yesterday.
Buttler’s fourth century in this format, his second in a row and his slowest even though it came in just 73 balls, powered Eoin Morgan’s team to an imposing total of 399 for 9. It was England’s second-highest score in 50-over cricket and the most runs they have scored overseas in this format.
However, an equally impressive, unbeaten hundred by Quinton de Kock got South Africa to within 150 of their target before the rain fell. At that stage the hosts had 99 balls to knock off the runs and five wickets in hand.
De Kock, poised on 138, had given his side a chance of chasing down a score of 400 or more for only the second time in all one-day internationals.
But the deluge that fell on this part of the Free State denied the match what might have been a thrilling finale and allowed England to win by 39 runs thanks to the Duckworth-Lewis method.
If the method of victory was unsatisfying for England, then Buttler’s innings was anything but. The 25-year-old may have lost his place in the Test team to Jonny Bairstow but his ability to light up the limited-overs arena is unquestioned.
In Dubai in November he scored a century in 46 balls to set up a series-clinching win against Pakistan. It was the quickest by an England player in 50-over cricket and the progression of Buttler, who now has the three fastest England hundreds in this format, is reflective of the team’s progress since last winter’s miserable first-round exit from the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“Jos was phenomenal,” said Morgan. “He is someone who can certainly change the game. It was an unbelievable effort. It’s great to watch. To see him do it in the last game in the UAE and the first here really does set up what is, hopefully, a great series for him.”
Buttler, who smashed five sixes and 11 fours, built on the fast start given by the openers Jason Roy and Alex Hales when he came to the crease with England on 130 for 2 in the 18th over.
“I have slowed down a bit but really enjoyed it,” said Buttler. “It has been a long tour not playing, so to get the chance finally and to take it was pleasing.”
England, who were also boosted by half-centuries from Hales, Joe Root and Ben Stokes, at one point looked as though they might beat their record ODI total of 408 for 9 set against New Zealand at Edgbaston last June.
In the end they fell short but the fact that five of England’s top seven totals in their one-day history have come since last summer illustrates perfectly their remarkable revival in 50-over cricket.
“It was a monumental effort,” said Morgan. “Doing that in the first game of the series is really important. Re-engaging with the type of cricket we have played after a little bit of a break is very important for the team. We have players who really enjoy playing in that vein, so it’s really exciting.”
South Africa’s chase was undermined at the start when David Willey bowled Hashim Amla via an inside edge in the third over of their reply.
De Kock’s ninth ODI hundred kept his side well in the game despite the fact that AB de Villiers had been dismissed by a brilliant one-handed catch from Stokes in the deep.
That was one of three wickets for Moeen Ali’s spin but South Africa’s captain hinted that there may have been some underhand tactics before his dismissal, mischievously suggesting someone moved the boundary rope back to allow Stokes to make the catch.
“It was a great catch and I thought he did well to keep it in – if he did!” said De Villiers. “There are lots of rumours and theories going on in the changing room.
“I’m not getting involved but a lot of guys think I was a bit unlucky there. I’m happy to walk off when the umpire gives me out. It was a silly shot. I’m better than that.”
For England this is another step in the right direction. The challenge now is to back it up in Saturday’s second match of the series in Port Elizabeth.