Jofra Archer’s return set to headline low-key series
Excuse me while I interrupt myself, as the great Murray Walker once put it, but we’ve got an international series about to butt into the schedule in South Africa. A nation newly energised by the successful launch of the SA20 will be putting that tournament on ice for a week to host the team that welshed on them two years ago – when what some might term a convenient Covid outbreak forced the last-minute cancellation of England’s three pre-Christmas ODIs.
Notwithstanding the fast-approaching World Cup in India this year, and the need for international teams to reacquaint themselves with the rigours of 50-over cricket, this bizarre stop-over rather epitomises the current moribund state of bilateral international cricket – a format that has long been beholden to the whims of TV contracts, but which has been made to feel extra extraneous in recent months.
England’s last ODI series (do you recall any details? Thought not) was a benighted affair in Australia, similarly shoehorned into the schedule as part of the Covid backlog, while this month’s explosion of franchise T20 leagues offers the other side of a potential pincer movement on the international game. Will the crowds flock to Bloemfontein and Kimberley as they have done to Newlands and Paarl these past few weeks, or will they park their affections and wait for their new favourite tournament to resume? The early indications of ticket sales are not promising. For a country that has openly sacrificed its international calendar in order to pivot to the franchise world, this feels like a significant test case.
There is, however, at least one good reason to fork out the R250 for entry this week. The return of Jofra Archer after nearly two years out of the England set-up is a joyous development, even if South Africa’s batters might not feel quite as enthused at the prospect. One of the purest talents in world cricket has been through the wringer since twin elbow operations in 2021, and last year’s back stress fracture was a cruelly timed blow, just when it seemed he was stepping up for a comeback. In his own assessment, he is currently “80 percent fit”, but Archer’s displays in the SA20 have sent a strong message that his mechanism is no less primed to purr for the indignities he’s endured. He’s got a big year ahead of him, with another Ashes and World Cup double-header to work towards, and in England terms it starts right here.
Who knows quite where England are at in general terms, however. As the newly-crowned double World Champions, they can assemble for these contests with rather more strut than they displayed in a confused home campaign last summer, when Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott were still bedding in as the new captain/coach alliance, and when South Africa not only swiped the T20I series but were well placed to pinch the ODIs too when rain interrupted Quinton de Kock’s best efforts in the series decider at Headingley.
Either way, the settled England side that, by this stage of the 2019 World Cup cycle, was on cruise control is a thing of the past. All manner of questions will need answering in the coming months, and only a handful of them are likely to be addressed in the next three days.
Is Jason Roy’s slump in form terminal? Is Dawid Malan the long-term answer at No.3, or just a placeholder while Joe Root focuses on Bazball? Do Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali have another World Cup in them? And can Mott get through a press conference without being obliged to address the elephant who is most emphatically not in the room, Ben Stokes? Just as the T20 World Cup XI came together as if on the back of a packet of Tepal Tea in Pakistan, so you suspect the 50-over side won’t have any look of permanence until the final approach in October.
South Africa, by contrast, have a pretty good idea of their best XI – their major issue would appear to be settling on a style in which to unleash it. Temba Bavuma, their captain, acknowledged on the eve of the series that England’s recent Test exploits would serve as an inspiration of sorts, although seeing as he added that South Africa’s interpretation of Bazball might include “blocking the s*** out of it”, it sounds as though their tactics are a work in progress.
Either way, the form of Heinrich Klaasen in the SA20 bodes well as an example for the rest of the side to follow, and if de Kock has been short of a few runs, the class he exudes at the top of the order remains permanent. And lest we forget, in this era of cross-pollinated red- and white-ball mindsets, it was an attack spearheaded by Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rababa and Lungi Ngidi that got the better of England’s Test team at Lord’s last summer – the only match in 10 that Stokes’ men have so far lost. A repeat of that showing, and the Free State crowds might just decide that there’s legs in the international game yet.
South Africa LLWLW (last five Tests, most recent first) England LLLWL
In the spotlight
Despite his conspicuous lack of Test centuries, Temba Bavuma has arguably been South Africa’s best red-ball batter for the best part of two years. His white-ball form, on the other end, has been a work in progress, to put it kindly – and as his country’s captain, that’s a particularly tricky state of affairs. He did manage to reach three figures against India this time last year, but his form fell off a cliff in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup (and the less said about their eventual elimination, the better). Arguably he would be better off moving up to the top of the order, to emulate his T20 role, but right now, he just needs runs from whichever berth he so chooses.
All eyes will be on Archer, of course, but this series is just a staging post in his gradual return from injury. For Jason Roy, by contrast, there’s huge amounts at stake in the coming three games, as he strains every sinew for a semblance of form. His returns for Paarl Royals in the SA20 have been desperate, with a top-score of 33 in eight matches. Team-mate Jos Buttler, meanwhile, has only been dismissed for less than that total on two occasions – while his stiff-limbed displays in the Australia ODIs realised 39 runs from 61 balls. For seven years, Roy was the totem of Morgan’s rebooted England team, fearlessly gung-ho at the top of the order and never afraid to fail in his determination that the collective should succeed. More recently, however, he’s batted as if a trapdoor has opened up beneath his feet. With the coming man Will Jacks tearing it up in the SA20, if anyone needs a dose of the Bazball mindset, it is Roy.
Bavuma says he knows his best XI, but he isn’t giving away much just yet. Realistically, the one true question is whether Janneman Malan should continue at the top of the order, or Reeza Hendricks ought to get a crack there instead – although his awkward knock for JSK at the Wanderers on Tuesday, when Faf du Plessis all but lapped him in a 157-run opening stand, suggests he might be better off waiting his turn.
South Africa (possible) 1. Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Janneman Malan, 3 Temba Bavuma (capt), 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Heinrich Klaasen, 6 David Miller, 7 Wayne Parnell, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Sisanda Magala/Lungi Ngidi, 10 Tabraiz Shamsi, 11 Anrich Nortje
Harry Brook, seemingly a veteran across formats already, is poised to complete his full set of England caps when he’s handed his ODI debut. And while Archer’s return is the dominant item on the agenda, Ben Duckett‘s first 50-over appearance in six years is also anticipated, given that Phil Salt has been feeling under the weather this week. Reece Topley, like Archer, may not play all three games as he works his way back from the ankle injury that ended his World Cup hopes.
England: 1 Jason Roy, 2 Phil Salt / Ben Duckett, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Jos Buttler (capt & wk), 5 Harry Brook, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Jofra Archer, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Reece Topley / Olly Stone
Pitch and conditions
Bloemfontein boasts the biggest outfield in South Africa. There have been thunderstorms in the lead-up to the match but the weather on Friday is set fair, and due to be a sweltering 31 degrees.
Stats and trivia
If selected, Jofra Archer will be playing his first international match since the T20I tour of India in March 2021. He’s missed a total of 84 England games since then – 24 Tests, 21 ODIs and 39 T20Is.
And yet, astonishingly, England have never lost in four attempts at the venue. Bloemfontein was the scene of their solitary win in the 6-1 rout in 1996, as well as a nine-wicket cruise in 2000, and a gripping tie in Kevin Pietersen’s famous return to South Africa in 2005.
“We have a World Cup nine months away now and we don’t have loads of games before that. They’re all really vital games to give guys chances and exposure to the ODI format and give guys an opportunity to try and nail down a place in the XI or 15 for the World Cup.” Jos Buttler, England’s captain, recognises that the clock is ticking on England’s title defence
“We are South Africans. We have our way of thinking, our way of doing things. There’s nothing wrong with us taking a little bit from England, putting it together and seeing what comes about. With the personnel we have, guys going out and expressing themselves – if that equates to a South African ‘Bazball’ way of playing, to use a stupid term – then so be it. If it means we are going to go out there and block the s*** out of the ball, so be it.” South Africa’s captain Temba Bavuma isn’t afraid of borrowing some ideas from England, and putting a unique spin on them
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket