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T20 appetiser kicks off England’s huge challenge

alastair cook

Left: Alastair Cook is a worry for the opening T20 game.

England’s tour of South Africa begins in earnest today in Johannesburg with the first of two T20 internationals. This is the amuse bouche of the itinerary before the hors d’œuvre of five one day internationals and the succulent main course of four Tests, which begin with the first Test at Centurion on 16 December.

Andrew Strauss’ side have a tough assignment in all three forms to topple a strong South African side who are ranked the number one Test side in the World, and who before their lamentable performance in the Champions Trophy were also at the top of the ODI rankings too. The Tests are certainly an appetising prospect. Will England be able to kick on from the rather fortuitous Ashes triumph and repeat their success on the high veldt of 2004/05? Alas, the Tests are still some way off, so the focus today is on previewing the pyjamas part of the tour.

Amuse bouche

An indication of England’s paucity in the T20 game is that reports suggest they are anxiously waiting to see if sore throat victim Alastair Cook will be fit to take his place in the line up today. With respect to Cook what other international (or even county) side would be too concerned whether he was not in their T20 line up? Chris Gayle, Graeme Smith or Virender Sehwag sure, but not Cook. England are further weakened by the absence of Kevin Pietersen, who is being saved for the ODI series, and shoulder injury victim Stuart Broad, which gives a patchwork look to the side that will be led by Paul Collingwood in the absence of Strauss.

Fortunately, Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Graham Onions have all been declared fit after their injury worries and are all likely to take their places in the XI. Onions impressed Mickey Arthur during the recent Champions Trophy with the South Africa coach telling The Wisden Cricketer that Onions “…is a like for like replacement for Harmison”. Tellingly, Arthur went on to say that “Harmy would have been a handful and a lot of our batters are happy he’s not coming…”

With the need to build momentum early and another T20 World Cup on the horizon next spring in the Caribbean, the T20 series takes on more importance than would otherwise be the case. Assuming that Cook is fit to take his place at the top of the order with Joe Denly – hardly a pair to take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first six overs, England are likely to line up as follows with the final choice coming down to Adil Rashid or Tim Bresnan:

Cook, Denly, Jonathan Trott, Collingwood (C), Eoin Morgan, Matt Prior, Luke Wright, Rashid/Bresnan, Swann, Anderson and Onions.

As for a prediction, one cannot see beyond a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Proteas, who lest it not be forgotten were the most impressive side at the World T20 before they imploded in the semi-final against Pakistan.

Hors d’œuvre

The Champions Trophy victory against South Africa suggests that England should have a better chance in the ODI series that follows. Certainly the batting will be significantly reinforced with the return of Strauss and Pietersen and hopefully Broad will return to strengthen the bowling and balance of the side.

However, a cautionary note may be needed. South Africa may continually under perform and sometimes choke in major ICC limited overs tournaments such as the World Cup and Champions Trophy, but they are a formidable side with an excellent record in one day series especially at home. Even the triumphant England Test side of 2004/05 were easily beaten 4-1 by the Proteas in the one day series that followed the Tests; despite three centuries from Pietersen. Any side that includes Smith, Jacques Kallis, JP Duminy, AB De Villiers, Albie Morkel and Dale Steyn is going to be extremely tough to beat on their own patch.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious strength of the Proteas, England really should be striving to make a close contest of the ODI series, even if they are likely to lose 3-2 or 4-1. Assuming that Broad will return and that England will want to retain some flexibility in their bowling line up, the following line up could be the strongest available to Strauss and Andy Flower:

Strauss (C), Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Morgan, Prior, Wright, Broad, Swann, Anderson and Onions.

This means that Denly would unluckily miss out. On the other hand if Strauss and Flower are comfortable with Collingwood as the fifth bowler, then Denly could come back in for Wright.

The fun starts today…

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