Hello darkness, my old friend. I’m coming to talk with one of you again. But which one will it be?
Will it be England, the reigning world champions across 50- and 20-overs, whose quest for a third global title in four years is in danger of dissolving in a bisque of self-doubt? Instead of cementing a legacy to rival the great Australian team of the turn of the millennium, their humiliating losses to New Zealand and Afghanistan are threatening to cast England’s narrative back into their World Cup dark ages of the 1990s and 2000s, to make that 2015-19 resurgence seem more like a mirage than a miracle.
Or will it be South Africa… the calmest, most serene force in the competition for two heady performances, as a team seemingly without baggage cruised past Australia and Sri Lanka with scarcely a backwards glance, to give the impression that this… finally… could be their year.
It perhaps shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise that a team that saw off three Test nations at a savage qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe this summer should have arrived in India with their competitive juices pumping – they are arguably better prepped for the maelstrom than many of the more favoured teams, England among them. The trouble is, the catastrophisation of South Africa’s World Cup setbacks will remain on a different scale until such time as the team can shrug off their 31-year hoodoo.
And so, even though a follow-up defeat to the world champions on Saturday would not end South Africa’s hopes of progressing to the knockouts – a third England loss would be vastly more damaging to their own prospects – it would torch the narrative that had prevailed in the first two weeks. No more talk of quiet confidence and flights below the radar for Temba Bavuma’s team, instead the stampede for the tournament post-mortems would begin.
Chris Woakes and Sam Curran have been particularly underwhelming, which has had knock-on effects for the impact that Mark Wood and Adil Rashid have been able to make in the middle overs. And while Reece Topley was immense in the victory over Bangladesh, the loss of Jofra Archer and the failure to find an adequate replacement for Liam Plunkett leaves England significantly short of the threat they carried in the 2019 campaign – and even then, they were prone to some profligate displays, safe in the knowledge that whatever they leaked with the ball, their batters were more than capable of matching.
That certainty no longer applies. And the fragility is palpable, even to a South Africa team that knows a thing or two about vulnerability.
Whatever happens, it promises to be a memorable day of England-South Africa sporting action, with the Rugby World Cup semi-final taking place in Paris soon after the close of play. In a pre-match message from the Springboks camp, Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s World Cup-winning captain, stated his “belief” and “trust” in his cricketing counterparts, while describing the Netherlands defeat as a “hiccup”. If they fail to make it right at the first attempt, however, there’s no doubt which respiratory malfunction will be on everyone else’s lips.
England LWLWW (last five ODIs, most recent first)
South Africa LWWWW
In the spotlight: Ben Stokes and Quinton de Kock
Much to ponder for England as they prepare to welcome Stokes back to the fold. His value as a pure batter is indisputable, but his absence as a bowler threatens the depth and balance that has been such a factor in the team’s white-ball success. Harry Brook was the man who benefited from Stokes’ hip injury, but as one of the few successes of a dismal display against Afghanistan, jettisoning him now would seem counterproductive. Instead, it seems the fall-guy will be Liam Livingstone, whose allsorts spin was a prized asset in the same game, but whose batting has been worryingly off-the-boil for several months now. Further concerns are stacking up in the middle-order, where Chris Woakes and Sam Curran were spanked for a combined 87 runs in eight overs by Rahmanullah Gurbaz and co. Neither has contributed enough with the bat either, but the management’s faith in Woakes seems deeper-seated. He might yet get another outing to find his range, with David Willey – the self-styled “donkey” of England’s attack – in line to replace Curran as a more heavy-duty left-arm option.
England: 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Dawid Malan, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Jos Buttler (capt/wk), 6 Harry Brook, 7 Chris Woakes, 8 David Willey, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Reece Topley
Of the two upsets in last week’s round of games, South Africa’s probably edged it in terms of shock value, but – despite the inevitable hacking sounds from the back of the class – it could also be more easily written off as a bad day at the office. Certainly the team that had pounded its way to the top of the standings with two statement wins over Australia and Sri Lanka looked balanced, composed and dripping with threat in every facet, from de Kock’s back-to-back hundreds at the top of the order, to the power and finesse of a thrillingly varied middle-order, and on through to a bowling attack in which Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada could hardly be more complementary as a trio of frontline seamers. In defiance of South Africa’s default setting at the first sign of World Cup adversity, “don’t panic!” is surely the message that a broadly unchanged XI will seek to send out. The only real selection call is Tabraiz Shamsi versus Gerald Coetzee, but the extra seamer in Coetzee seems the likelier route.
South Africa (probable): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Temba Bavuma (capt), 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 David Miller, 6 Heinrich Klaasen, 7 Marco Jansen, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi/Gerald Coetzee
Pitch and conditions: Runs in prospect
Mumbai’s had to wait two weeks to get into the World Cup spirit, but the first track of the tournament will surely offer runs in abundance. There is some patchy live grass on the strip and it looks perhaps a little dry, but it proved an absolute road in the IPL this year, with an average total across seven games of 196, including three successful chases of 200-plus. After escaping Dharamsala unscathed (at least in terms of personnel), both teams may look slightly askance at another less-than-ideal outfield, with several divots in evidence as a consequence of fielding drills.
Stats and trivia
“He’s been a fantastic performer for an incredibly long time for England in all formats and especially in one-day cricket. And we’re all honest guys, right? He’s not performing quite how he would like to at the minute, and that’s frustrating, but there’s no judgment from our side. We always back all our players that are in our team, they’re high-class players and he’s certainly one of those.”
Jos Buttler backs Chris Woakes to come good despite his rough start to the tournament
“Growing up idolising a guy like Sachin [Tendulkar], the Wankhede was a stadium you always heard about. It’s another tick off my list as a cricketer. JP [Duminy], and Quinny have spoken about how it has been a batters’ paradise. If it is your day, you can fill your boots, and with it being a full ground, there is really something to enjoy.”
South Africa’s captain Temba Bavuma, whose childhood nickname was “Sachin”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket