Now for a proper test of England’s status as favourites for the Champions Trophy. The two one-day internationals earlier this month were of modest value against modest Irish opposition. Hence shortcomings, such as David Willey’s inaccuracy with the new ball in those games, were more noteworthy than successes, though there were reminders that Jonny Bairstow is a damn good batsman not to be in the first XI.
But South Africa will offer a much sterner examination of an England squad that has been running, fielding and relaxing in the Spanish sun over the last few days. On Wednesday at Headingley there is the first of three ODIs – the others are at the Ageas Bowl on 27 May and Lord’s on 29 May. Thereafter the pursuit of the Champions Trophy begins in earnest at The Oval on 1 June against Bangladesh.
South Africa are ranked No1 in the world in this format. Their side is settled after a disappointing 2015 World Cup, though their campaign was nowhere near as inept as England’s – the Proteas lost to New Zealand in a thrilling semi-final. The team are ripe for trophies but they had better hurry up. Seven of the squad, all key players, are over 32. Hence the Champions Trophy is in their sights; as is the 2019 World Cup, after which the next generation is bound to take over.
So their squad contains many familiar faces, though Keshav Maharaj, a 27-year-old left-arm spinner yet to play an ODI, is new to most English onlookers, as is Andile Phehlukwayo, a 21-year-old pace-bowling all-rounder from KwaZulu Natal. The notable absentee is Dale Steyn, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery, which will also keep him out of South Africa’s Test squad to play against England from 6 July onwards. Steyn is 33 but still determined to return to international cricket. AB de Villiers will also be absent from the Test series, not through injury but to enhance his work/life balance.
When in form, a quartet of Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, AB de Villiers, the captain, and Faf du Plessis is surely a match for any side in the Champions Trophy. If the pitches are brown, which was often the case when the last Champions Trophy was held here, then expect the effervescent wrist-spinner, Imran Tahir, now 38 years old, to be in regular action. No doubt he will still be inclined to embark on a lap of the ground in celebration of his latest significant dismissal as befits the most travelled cricketer on the globe.
Many of the South Africans have been engaged in the IPL and for the first time this is also the case with several of the England squad. Hence there may be particular scrutiny of the players who have been regulars in three of the successful IPL teams: Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler. Have they been enhanced as cricketers by the experience? Are they exhausted after the buzz of playing in front of frenetic Indian crowds and being feted as mini-deities? Buttler, one can be sure, is more instantly recognised in Mumbai than Manchester.
Now they must attune themselves to the 50-over game – along with other major players in the Champions Trophy more accustomed to that transition – and Buttler must remember that it is now his duty to stick on the pads and grab the gloves before going out into the field. The decision to allow Woakes to miss the games against Ireland suggests that he is now regarded as a major player in England’s set-up.
So Woakes is surely inked into the first XI. The composition of the bowling attack will exercise the minds of Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss the most. They may shuffle their pack against South Africa but after the three matches they would like to know what constitutes their best combination. The return of Stokes makes it straightforward for England to play both of their spinners – against Ireland they selected only Adil Rashid, who enjoyed himself against batsmen in Bristol rather less adept against spin than De Villiers or Amla.
The temptation will always be to select Mark Wood since he is the English bowler most likely to deliver the explosive pace that might overcome the batsman-friendly pitches anticipated. That leaves a bowling slot left for one of Jake Ball, Liam Plunkett or Willey. An assessment of the conditions will be relevant when it comes to the Champions Trophy, but so will the confidence and form of the bowlers. Willey, in particular, needs to demonstrate that he knows where the ball is going to land and that it is likely to swing. The variety he provides as a left-armer is only an asset if those two criteria are fulfilled.
While England mull over their bowling options, their opponents over the next six weeks will concentrate more on any flaws they can spy in the batsmen. These are the men that “petrify” (according to a loose-tongued Sam Billings) or “demand respect” (according to just about everyone else).