England begin quest to cement World Cup XI against a South African side in disarray

Nick Hoult
·4 min read
Eoin Morgan - GETTY IMAGES
Eoin Morgan - GETTY IMAGES

Newlands will be eerily quiet on Friday. Its grassy banks will be devoid of spectators and players will hear the clatter of commuter trains going past on their way to the coast. But for England and South Africa, the start of the Twenty20 series offers a distraction from much bigger problems.

Eoin Morgan acknowledged the team’s responsibility to perform and offer those back home in the English winter some escapism from tiered restrictions and lockdown life. 

There are few England teams, in any sport, as thrilling to watch as England’s white-ball sides and when Morgan joked that net practice has been “dangerous” because of how hard the players have been hitting the ball, it was a reminder of the awesome shot-making power at his disposal. 

Entertaining people back home should not be a problem. Working out the best XI, however, is a different prospect and one issue Morgan has a year to crack before attempting to unite the two World Cups at the World Twenty20.

For South Africa, beating England’s team “full of match-winners”, as their captain Quinton De Kock called them, is an opportunity to divert attention back on their cricket.

They talk about “Protea Fire” when marketing the South African team, but in recent months the only burning has been of the game’s reputation. South Africa have not played since March 7 and since then its board has been threatened with takeover by the South African government for alleged “serious misconduct” by officials. 

It was only this week that a forensic report commissioned by the board into the running of the sport, and used to sack its chief executive in August, was made public under heavy governmental pressure. The 456-page document revealed officials buying up to $20,000 (£15,000) worth of alcohol on company credits including one transaction of $3,000 (£2,250) at a Cape Town champagne bar. The report also highlighted concerns over how loans and grants were dolled out, how service contracts awarded, and payments of tax and VAT. Meanwhile, sponsors have drifted away in droves.

Just when the cricket was supposed to offer some respite, two unnamed South Africa players failed Covid tests and will miss this match. In a country where there remains a stigma over testing positive for the virus, the news was “enormously stressful” for everyone in the squad, according to the team doctor.  Unhappy players even complained about the methods of a tester, who was replaced for being “over-enthusiastic” when swabbing up noses “and into your brain as well”, said Dr Shuaib Manjra.

South Africa were plunged into further controversy this week when it was announced the players will not be taking a knee. It was described as a “cop out” by one newspaper and “muddled” thinking by another. Under pressure, the team released a lengthy statement on Wednesday explaining their decision and recommitting to “anti-racism”.

So with all this going on you can see why De Kock was happy to finally talk about the threats of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. “It’s a fresh start. The guys are ready to go and help change what has been going on around cricket in South Africa. We want to lead from the front,” he said.

Morgan’s mind is clearer. He just has to work out his best team. He knows eight or nine, he said on Thursday, but admitted winning this series takes priority, which is why Sam Curran will play ahead of Moeen Ali. Two spinners is a luxury on South African pitches, but will be vital in India at the World Cup.

Sam Curran will bat at seven. Morgan is poised to push himself down the order to six, offering England an experienced finisher, and also to accommodate their bristling top order. Jason Roy and Jos Buttler will open, Dawid Malan at three, Jonny Bairstow four and Stokes at five. 

This will be the first time Stokes has played alongside Jofra Archer in a Twenty20 for England, showing how rare it is for Morgan to have a full-strength side.

Morgan was mulling over whether to pair the pace of Archer and Mark Wood, or picking Tom Curran instead. Tom Curran would play for Wood, and offer more control and subtle changes of pace. Archer was the IPL’s player of the season and Morgan described him as “incredible to have around” admitting rest and rotation will mean he might not play many more white-ball games before the next T20 World Cup. This series will be over by Tuesday, but there is a lot to decide by then.