South Africa vs England: Five Twenty20 classics

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Rob Bagchi
·14 min read
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Joe Root - AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool
Joe Root - AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

England begin a congested winter of cricket on Friday with the first of three T20 internationals against South Africa at Newlands. At first England struggled to match the improvisation and aggressive approach of a side propelled to new heights of innovative hitting by AB De Villiers' emergence as the best white-ball batsman in the world but they eventually threw off their own inhibitions to take them on at their own game with fearless ball-striking, pace and wrist spin. Here are five of the most significant of those matches. 

2016 World Twenty20, Mumbai

The first great Test of the captaincy of Eoin Morgan in tournament cricket following the adoption of the modern, aggressive approach he championed after England’s embarrassing nadir at the 2015 World Cup. Having lost the toss in their first group match against West Indies and put into bat, they made a creditable enough 182 for six in their 20 overs but struggled from the beginning of West Indies’ chase to control a dew-soaked ball. Chris Gayle launched a blistering assault and as diligently as England applied towels between deliveries, more often than not the white Kookaburra slithered out of the hand like a moist bar of Imperial Leather. Gayle hit 11 sixes in his 48-ball, unbeaten hundred, three of them off the last three balls of Moeen Ali’s hitherto respectable spell and led his side to victory with 11 balls to spare.

The knives were out halfway through their next match against South Africa: had they lost, they would have been eliminated from the tournament with their third and fourth group games still to play but that looked certain to be their fate after Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla put on 96 for the first wicket off 83 balls, both openers making fifties along with JP Duminy, whose 28-ball 54 in a 27-ball, fifth-wicket stand of 60 drove South Africa to 229 for four. The carping was in full flight, many channelling the spirit of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again to proclaim that when it mattered most this new England side was the same as the old one. 

And yet there had been signs when England bowled – Moeen and Adil Rashid turning the screw in the 10th, 11th and 12th overs – that South Africa had picked one frontline spinner too few while the troubles their fast bowlers had encountered with grip during the defeat by West Indies would be just as problematic for Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada. Chris Moris and Kyle Abbott. Trimming the wide lines with yorkers and bowling slower balls would be difficult enough without the ball spraying out of their hands. 

Jason Roy hammered four fours off Kagiso Rabada’s first over and the opening bowler tried to fight back with a bouncer that trampolined over Roy, Quinton de Kock and went for five wides. Twenty-one off the first over. Alex Hales hit each of the first three balls of Dale Steyn’s first over for four and, after taking a single off the fourth, left Roy on strike to finish the over with a four and a six. Forty-four off 12 balls. Whatever this was, it could never be construed as “the same old England” and those on social media who had been calling for the head of the captain they revealingly kept calling “the Irishman” piped down, at least for a while. 

Roy made 43 off 16 deliveries, Hales 17 off seven and Stokes 15 off nine but it was Joe Root, coming in at No4, who guided England home with an innings of rubber-wristed deftness combined with sweetly-timed power-hitting. He made 83 off 44 balls and hauled England to 11 short of the target with 10 balls and four wickets left. That innings should have been the coronation of Root as England’s Javed Miandad, our ‘Joeved’ – skilful, gritty, impish and resourceful. That side of him, free from the cares of captaincy, resurfaced during the 2019 World Cup but he is still struggling to revive it in red-ball cricket to turn that glut of half-centuries into the more substantial innings of Messrs Smith, Kohli, Babar, Williamson and Labuschagne. 

England's Jason Roy plays a shot during the World T20 cricket tournament match between England and South Africa at The Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai  - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP
England's Jason Roy plays a shot during the World T20 cricket tournament match between England and South Africa at The Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai - INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

Moeen and Chris Jordan exchanged fours and singles from the last four balls of the penultimate over and though England lost two wickets at the start of the final over, Moeen chipped a drive over mid-off to secure the victory with two wickets and two balls left to complete the biggest successful chase in the tournament’s short history. 

From the moment Roy teed off England did not look back until the last over of the final when West Indies and Carlos Brathwaite came back to bite them even more savagely. Stokes, defending a lead of 18, was struck for four successive sixes and England fell short but the bruising disappointment was not overwhelming and steeled them for the greater triumph to come in 2019. 

2014 World Twenty 20, Chittagong

Alex Hales’ unbeaten 116 propelled England to victory over the eventual champions Sri Lanka in their second of four group games after losing to New Zealand in the first, but Stuart Broad’s side still needed to beat South Africa in the third to keep their semi-final prospects alive. England put South Africa in to bat after winning the toss but found AB de Villiers, leading the side in the absence of Faf du Plessis, who was serving a one-match ban for a dilatory over rate, at his irrepressible, improvisational best.

Coming in first-wicket down at 90 for one off 10.5 overs, he went berserk, smashing 69 off 28 balls. Jade Dernbach had gone for 18 off his first two overs but Tim Bresnan, James Tredwell and Chris Jordan had reined the openers in after their fast start. Dernbach, England’s death specialist for three years in 58 white-ball internationals because of his seemingly limitless repertoire of slower balls, returned after Broad’s final over had been hit for 13 to leave South Africa on 141 for three with three overs to go. It proved to be Dernbach’s final over as an England player, his international career ending at the age of 28.

Jade Dernbach of England reacts after bowling to AB de Villiers of South Africa during the ICC World Twenty20 Bangladesh 2014 Group 1 match between England and South Africa at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium - Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Jade Dernbach of England reacts after bowling to AB de Villiers of South Africa during the ICC World Twenty20 Bangladesh 2014 Group 1 match between England and South Africa at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

It went like this: four, four, wide, one, two, wide, six, no ball, six. He began by straining for yorkers, his stock delivery, did not land them and David Miller and De Villiers, exploited his self-doubt with ruthless aggression. Jordan took a wicket and went for 15 off his last over and Bresnan, not expecting to be called back into the attack but forced into it by Dernbach’s wobble, kept them down to 14. The last four overs cost 68. 

England set off at a decent lick, taking 47 off the first Powerplay for the loss of only Michael Lumb. Alex Hales, Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara all chipped in and formed useful partnerships but four overs from the start of the ninth without a boundary put them under severe pressure as they tried to catch up. Taking 17 off the 14th over left them 67 to win off 36 balls but the loss of Buttler, who holed out on the reverse sweep off the brilliant Imran Tahir only four balls later, effectively sank them.

Bopara carried the standard, putting on 36 from 21 balls with Jordan, but they were 30 short of their target when Jordan was caught with nine balls left. It needed the kind of knock that Brathwaite made in Kolkata two years’ hence but Bopara managed only eight off three balls before he fell, leaving 22 off five. Broad and Bresnan managed only two singles off the next two deliveries and though Bresnan finished with a flourish, swatting Dale Steyn for six-four-six, England lost by three runs. 

At the end of the tournament England hired the winning coach, Sri Lanka’s Paul Farbrace, and promoted Morgan from vice-captain to captain. They would plumb new depths in white-ball cricket within the year but the foundations for the revolution were slowly being entrenched. 

1st T20, Johannesburg 2009

England had completed only 20 T20 internationals in four years before touring South Africa in 2009, winning eight and losing 12 as they struggled to overcome their reluctance to drop established Test and ODI players from the format. They had been beaten heavily by South Africa in their two meetings to date and had abandoned the experiment with big hitters at the 2009 World T20 in favour of picking Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott in the top three.

Cook made 11 off eight balls at the Wanderers, Trott 33 off 25, decent contributions and ones which, crucially, did not overstay their welcomes. They built a platform for the captain, Paul Collingwood, and Eoin Morgan to put on a fourth-wicket partnership of 98 from 55 balls and proved that, in the absence of the injured Kevin Pietersen, England had enough striking talent to compete with the teams who had made them look antediluvian at the two previous global tournaments. The captain hit four sixes in his 32-ball 57, Morgan five in making an unbeaten 85 off 45, then the highest score by an England player and, for only, the second time England posted a total above 200.

With heavy rain forecast for the evening, Graeme Smith and Loots Bosman teed off in a frenzy, determined to get ahead of the rate in case the storm hit Johannesburg and raced to 97 off 51 deliveries before Luke Wright diddled Smith with a slower ball which he slapped to Morgan at point. In the next over Bosman, who had scored 58 off 31 balls with five fours and four sixes, clothed Graeme Swann over midwicket and Collingwood dived to catch a swirling, steepling brute but South Africa were still ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis target when Albie Morkel slogged a six off Swann’s next over.

Eoin Morgan reverse sweeps - Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Eoin Morgan reverse sweeps - Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

With rain drops already on the camera lens, Collingwood brought back Anderson for the 13th over with South Africa on 121 for three and he responded by dragging England back into the lead when the clouds broke at the end of the over. He managed it with superb control for five of the seven deliveries. One of the two others was a slow bouncer which was called wide and a floaty one in the slot that Morkel swiped to backward point where Cook saved four with a wonderful diving stop. Hitting the seam, Anderson restricted Morkel and AB De Villiers to five singles and a wide which gave England a D/L lead of one run when the players were forced off.

It took an age for the prospect of further play to be extinguished but eventually the match was called in England’s favour. Not a traditional tight game, the archetypal ‘nipper’ that goes to the wire, here England showed that they could match the ‘fearless’ approach of the highest-ranked sides, clinically boil South Africa’s chase down to individual deliveries to defend and hold their nerve while doing so, the right blend of a broader vision and attention to detail. They also learnt from South Africa’s openers and come the next World T20 the following year, they sent out Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb to open the innings and won their first global tournament.

1st T20, East London 2020

Lungi Ngidi’s finest hour: England held South Africa to 177 for eight, largely because of the excellence of Moeen Ali (4-0-22-1) and Adil Rashid (4-0-23-1) and the knack of taking wickets just as Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen were poised to take valuable cameos into De Villiers territory. 

England got off to a flier, Jason Roy biffing 70 off 38 balls with Buttler and Bairstow chipping in and when Roy was out with the touring side needing 46 off 24 balls, Morgan was ideally placed to take them home. But he could not find anyone to stay with him, losing Joe Denly for three off four balls and Stokes for four off seven.

Nonetheless with 23 required off the last two overs, he and Moeen took a pair of singles and then he pulled Beuran Hendricks for four, smoked the next ball on the drive down the ground for four more and smeared the sixth over deep extra for six. Seven to win off seven balls yet Morgan wass seduced by Hendricks length to try to tie the scores with one stroke and flayed the ball down long on’s throat. 

Seven to win off six. De Kock gave the ball to Lungi Ngidi who had a respectable one for 25 off his first three overs. Tom Curran swished the first ball off his pads for a hard run two. Five off five needed. Curran followed Morgan’s lead and mowed the next delivery to cow corner but the wind holds it up and David Miller, the midwicket sweeper, bags the catch. The batsmen had crossed so Moeen was now on strike. Five off four … make that five off three as the left-hander had a swing and missesd 

Moeen steadied himself and inside-edged as Nigidi changed up in pace. The ball flicked off his pad and they ran two as it dribbled wide of De Kock. The wicketkeeper reviewed for leg-before but there was clearly a nick. Three off two to win. Nigidi unveiled his off-cutter, Moeen, on the charge, yorked himself and the ball cannoned into off stump. Three off the last ball or two for the super over. Ngidi double bluffed Rashid with another big off-cutter that the wristy right-hander managed to clip into the legside via his pad. He ran one, turned to tie the match but Steyn’s fling arrowed into De Kock’s gloves and the captain demolishes the stumps with Rashid stranded by miles.

Lungi Ngidi - REUTERS/Rogan Ward
Lungi Ngidi - REUTERS/Rogan Ward

England lost the match by one run but it is more accurate to say that Ngidi won it because of an outstanding over that brought three wickets at the cost of a mere five runs. 

3rd T20, Centurion 2020

Not a classic in the conventional sense but the last match to date England played in front of a crowd and included here to mark everyone and everything we have missed this past nine months. 

Having squared the series at Kingsmead when Tom Curran did an Ngidi and defended a target of 15 off his final over with a dot ball to start, a two, four and six off successive deliveries and two wickets to finish, all bar Curran and Ben Stokes of England’s bowlers were taken to the cleaners by South Africa who put on 222 for six, Heinrich Klaasen top-scoring with 66 off 33 balls. 

England’s new opening partnership of Jos Buttler and Jason Roy failed to click again but the second-wicket stand between Buttler and Bairstow, of 95 off 49 balls, set the middle order up for a victory charge. Buttler was dismissed for 57 off 29 deliveries, Bairstow 64 off 34 and when the latter fell England needed 83 from the remaining 7.3 overs. Morgan, rejuvenated after his back injury, led the way, larruping seven sixes in his unbeaten 22-ball 57, Stokes chipped in with 22, and England waltzed home to win by five wickets with five balls to spare. 

Jos Buttler of England bats during the Third T20 International match between South Africa and England at Supersport Park - Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Jos Buttler of England bats during the Third T20 International match between South Africa and England at Supersport Park - Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Not a particular close match yet a classic nonetheless, made so by the force of England’s striking, the sunshine, the braais and the comradeship of those not merely watching but, by their presence, also participating in a grand day out.