Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Unhappy endings

Tuesday, 23 February 2016
The tour of South Africa came to a crushing finish, the happy high of the test series disappearing as five straight defeats saw a 2-0 lead in the ODI series surrendered and both Twenty20 matches lost. After six straight Twenty20 wins, hopes had - albeit somewhat cautiously - started to rise ahead of the World Twenty20 in a few weeks time. Right now it feels like they have as much work to do as ever. Maybe it's their own way of managing expectations - a few reassuring collapses just so we don't get too far ahead of ourselves.

Of course, a great thing about Twenty20 is its unpredictability. Each World Cup has seen a different winner emerge at the end, and within the space of a few balls the match situation can feel drastically different. Batsmen can so suddenly find themselves on a hot streak, but wickets can fall quickly and then they're under pressure once again. And England can be just as unpredictable. They have players of immense talent and with pedigree in the format, and the six game streak shows how they can deliver - putting on big scores and coming through in pressure situations. But at the same time, there's always a collapse around the corner that can lose them the match. I can't predict their chances in India because I honestly don't know what to expect. But it will be tough.

Reece Topley will be hurting after the first match, but really it was the batsmen who let England down. There are always those tiny moments that have the final impact on the match - the last wicket to fall as a team desperately battles for a draw, the dropped catch, the missed run-out chance that was the case for Topley. But it was a great effort from the bowlers to get into the position where they should have won the match in the last over - Chris Jordan particularly impressing with figures of 3/23 from four. 15 runs were needed in the final over, but Chris Morris was there again - just like he had been in the ODI series. Two full tosses proved costly, dispatched for ten runs. Two were needed from the last delivery, and two were scored as Topley fumbled the throw from Root. It was a cruel way for things to end.

But it should have been better from England. They started strongly - 50 runs from the powerplay and 36 of those in the first three overs. But then they stuttered, and stuttered, and stuttered. Wickets fell in clusters, and batsmen couldn't get away. Buttler was left with a repairs job rather than being able to express himself in the way he can do so well. In the end, they might not have needed that many more, but a total of 134 never looked like being enough. The four wickets of Imran Tahir left a sense of foreboding ahead of a World Cup on the turning pitches of India.

It could have been different in the second match, too. There are few ways to stop AB de Villiers when he gets in the sort of mood he was in when South Africa went out to bat, but there must be ways to stop the kind of collapse that sees a team 171 all out after being 157/3. The scorecard makes horrible reading, progressing from the scores of Root (34 from 17), Morgan (38 from 23), and Buttler (54 from 28) onto something that looks more like a phone number: 1, 5, 1, 1, 2, 1. And then came de Villiers. 71 from 29 balls, six fours, six sixes, strike rate 244.82. Amla's 69* from 38 almost looks slow in comparison. The innings didn't last long, the total chased down within 15 overs with only one wicket to fall.

So once again, England are left with a lot to think about on the eve of a major tournament. It wouldn't be a major tournament otherwise. I don't want to get too pessimistic, because they're a talented bunch of players who have had success in the format over the past year - but it's also fair to say that results in South Africa have dampened expectations a fair bit. Part of it seems to be that they don't quite know their best eleven, or their best batting line-up. There are many all rounders there to work out the order for - David Willey comes in all the way down at number ten, for example. They haven't been able to play Steven Finn in the past few months due to injury, there's the question of James Vince or Jason Roy, and whether or not they want to play the third spinner once they reach India. England can be so full of surprises, good or bad, that it's hard to know what to expect. But it's usually worth watching to find out.

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