Cape Town – Who’d be brave enough to confidently pick a
winner for Wednesday’s ICC Champions Trophy semi-final between the Proteas and
host nation England at The Oval (11.30 SA time)?
Like so many matches at the eight-team tournament, you can’t
emphatically suggest one team will have a clear-cut edge over the other.
Examination of a form guide -- at this particular event but
also for most recent bilateral one-day international competition between the
two -- only really throws up further confusion.
England have blown hot and cold in Group A, although they at
least won their pool, which is more than the Proteas can boast as second-placed
finishers behind India in Group B.
Alastair Cook’s side convincingly beat Australia, before
taking a right old bludgeoning from Sri Lanka’s batsmen, and then bouncing back
to beat New Zealand in a severely rain-curtailed encounter.
South Africa, for their part, decisively felt the wrath of
India’s batsmen first-up, before turning in a much more clinical effort to see
off Pakistan and also sampling a weather-affected affair in that nail-biting
tie with West Indies.
The fact that neither of Wednesday’s foes can be called a
truly finely-tuned machine in the format at present is reflected in identical
occurrences, too, during their most recent respective home seasons: surprise
2-1 defeats in three-match home series against the Black Caps.
The Proteas suffered that fate during 2012/13, and England
much more recently as they limbered up for this jamboree – each time the New
Zealanders had opened up unassailable 2-0 leads before succumbing in
dead-rubber affairs at the end.
Any attempt to separate England and South Africa based on
their most recent series only clouds the picture further: they shared the
spoils 2-2 in an intended five-game showdown in 2012 (one washout) after Graeme
Smith’s charges had handsomely won the main-event Test series on enemy terrain.
You could say that the English will sport a minor
psychological advantage for the semi, given that The Oval is one of the grounds
where they won during that ding-dong series, by four wickets.
They will obviously benefit from majority support at the
Kennington venue, although with a bit of luck the largely absent – thus far --
SA expats in London will pitch up in meaningful numbers to ensure at least some
“green” presence at a much more convenient location than Birmingham or Cardiff.
If AB de Villiers’s side want to draw some comfort from the
choice of ground for the big encounter, they may try to convince themselves
that England will carry a bit of mental scarring from their visit there only a
few days ago, when Kumar Sangakkara gorged himself on pretty much their entire
attack en route to a game-swaying 134 not out in the Lankans’ powerful victory.
A common thread for both protagonists at the Champions
Trophy has been greater comfort, generally, at the crease than in the field –
England have mostly posted healthy totals despite a suspicion that they carry
some batsman better suited to the cagier demands of Tests than one-dayers, and
the same applies to the Proteas, playing their strokes confidently though still
susceptible to little spells where they lose the bowling plot rather violently.
England are slightly superior at present on the official ODI
rankings, where they stand second to South Africa’s fourth ... but a flimsy one
rating point divides them.
There is good needle whenever these foes meet, with that
single-minded, SA-born batsman Jonathan Trott (in reasonably good touch for
England) always going out of his way to try to get under the Proteas’ skins in
his unique little manner.
Meanwhile the South Africans’ supreme strike-bowling factor
Dale Steyn gets a first head-to-head opportunity to settle debate after England
bowling coach David Saker controversially stated a few weeks ago that James
Anderson had a broader range of skills than him.
Some spectator nails may be chewed to the point of bleeding
on Wednesday ...
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