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The Proteas aren’t a bad side, England are just very good

Losing to England, even if below par with the bat, is no indictment on the Proteas, writes Daniel Gallan.

England fans react to a catch by Ben Stokes during a Cricket World Cup match between England and the Proteas at the Oval on 30 May 2019. Picture: @cricketworldcup/Twitter.

LONDON - Andile Phehlukwayo hammers his flat slog sweep off Adil Rashid in South Africa’s 35th over, but doesn’t quite get the elevation he’s looking for. Thankfully for him, Ben Stokes has wondered too far in from his position at deep backward square and now finds himself under the trajectory of the ball that is destined to clear his head.

In desperation, the Englishman throws his body in the air, contorting his frame into a position that must have a yoga pose named after it. When he lands, the ball is in his hand. When he stands up to celebrate all he can muster is a laugh and a shake of his head, such is his own disbelief in the outrageous grab he has managed to pull off.

Everything you need to know about the gulf between these two sides is encapsulated in this one play. Phehlukwayo was seen in training this week hitting slog sweep after slog sweep, middling everyone. He couldn’t have hit this one any harder and yet it signalled his marching orders. South Africa’s best effort is trumped by English brilliance.

England’s batsmen treat the fall of wickets like a drunk driver treats potholes on the road; they simply ignore their existence and keep their foot on the gas.

Even when Imran Tahir bagged a wicket with the second ball of the match - a fizzing, zipping wrong-un that found Jonny Bairstow’s outside edge - Jason Roy and Joe Root batted as if the information on the scoreboard was an irrelevance in a stand of 107.

When both were dismissed in the space of two overs, Eoin Morgan and Stokes shrugged their shoulders and knocked off 106 runs together while keeping the score moving at close to a run a ball on a tricky surface.

Against an ordinary side, Aiden Markram’s stunning grab at long off to dismiss Morgan in the 37th over when a century looked a certainty would have proved derailing. Not for this England side who still posted 311/8 thanks to Stokes’ 89 off 79 balls and handy contributions from their bowlers.

The thing is, Faf du Plessis might have bitten your hand off if you’d offered him a target of 312 against this English side who have made totals north of 350 look routine. It was a testament to his bowlers who lived up to their billing as one of the best attacks in the competition. Though Lungisani Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada looked down on pace, they bagged three and two wickets respectively with Tahir picking up a brace of his own. First box ticked.

Hashim Amla has looked like his old self of late. Against the trundlers of Sri Lanka and the West Indies he hit back to back fifties in warm-up games in Cardiff and Bristol. But now he was up against Jofra Archer, possibly the fastest of all the bowlers he’ll face over the next six weeks, and England’s new tearaway had a point to prove.

Archer’s eighth ball to Amla rose sharply from an uncomfortable length and cracked the senior Proteas batsman flush on the helmet, forcing him off the field amid concussion concerns. That set a marker for the rest of the innings that stumbled along like punch drunk boxer.

Quinton de Kock died by the sword, hitting a leg side long hop straight to the man at fine leg when anywhere else would have seen him add to his score of 68. Rassie van der Dussen played a steadying hand for his 50 of 61 before he too was bounced out by Archer’s extra oomph. Phehlukwayo’s 24 was handy but not enough. No other South African managed more than 13.

South Africa were not at their best with the bat. Far from it. Taking on Archer’s short ball was unwise. His acceleration off the surface has been well covered but he generally operates in short bursts and with a reachable target to chase, a measured approach might have been the safer course.

Aiden Markram once again nicked a wafting short ball just outside off stump immediately after caressing a ball through the boundary with a cover drive. JP Duminy offered catching practice to Stokes from a poor shot off Moeen Ali. Du Plessis was one of those who was dismissed after top edging Archer. All three are better batsmen than their performances showed. All three will make more runs against lesser opposition.

England justified their favourites’ tag with a complete performance. Losing to this side, even if below par with the bat, is no indictment on this South African team.

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