Ben Stokes was exceptional. Jofra Archer was magnificent. England were superlative.
England showed everyone why they have been rightly touted as the favourites to lift the World Cup title, in the tournament opener against South Africa at the Oval on Thursday (May 30). The home team were smart and calculative with their approach and were able to outclass Proteas in all three departments to clinch a commanding 104-run victory.
Asked to bat, Stokes (79-ball 89) top scored for the home side while the likes of Jason Roy, Joe Root and Eoin Morgan too scored fifties. Despite all the effort, South Africa were actually pretty good with the ball as they restricted the formidable England side to a manageable total of 311 for 8.
In reply, Quinton de Kock (68) and Rassie van der Dussen (50) crafted fifties after Archer (3 for 27) blew away their top order. What was started by Archer, was ended by Liam Plunkett and Stokes as South Africa were bowled out for 207 in 39.5 overs.
Earlier, South African captain Faf du Plessis caught English openers off guard by throwing the new ball to Imran Tahir (2 for 61) and the legspinner was up and ‘running’ as he had Jonny Bairstow caught behind for a golden duck just in the second delivery of the innings. Roy too was slightly slower by his standards but along with Root laid a solid platform for the coming batsmen.
Despite not being at his brutal best, Roy kept finding boundaries at regular intervals, while Root kept the scoreboard ticking with ones and two. The duo batted very smartly against Kagiso Rabada (2 for 66) and Lungi Ngidi (3 for 66) and pounced on every bad delivery. The two added 106 runs for the second wicket and completed their half centuries in the 18th over.
For South Africa, Dwaine Pretorius and Andile Phehlukwayo bowled some tight overs in the middle and that forced Roy to go for big shots. The right-hander slammed Phehlukwayo down the ground but before he could cause any further damage, Roy mistimed a pull and was caught at mid-off for 53-ball 54. Du Plessis straightaway brought back Rabada to attack the new batsman but the paceman did one better and got rid of Root for 59-ball 51.
Morgan and Stokes then ensured that there was no collapse as the two put on 106 runs for the fourth wicket. The two batsmen took their time and that allowed du Plessis to use part-timers JP Duminy and Aiden Markram for a couple of overs. Morgan broke the shackles by smashing Ngidi and Markram for three sixes and in the process went past 7000 runs in his 200th ODI for England.
Stokes allowed Morgan to dominate before finally opening his shoulders after the second drinks break. The left-hander slammed Pretorius for three fours in the 36th over to complete his fifty.
Just when it looked like the two would take the game away from South Africa, Tahir returned to had Morgan caught at long on for 60-ball 57. There wasn’t much contribution from Jos Buttler (18) and Moeen Ali (3) as the two fell prey to Ngidi.
Stokes, who hit nine fours in his innings, was there till the penultimate over but South African bowlers never allowed him to get going. The all-rounder was eventually dismissed by Ngidi who along with Rabada kept picking up wickets in the final 10 overs. The two pacers used a lot of variations as England could only score 76 runs in the last 10 overs despite having six wickets in hand.
There’s a reason why everyone in England was crying for Archer’s inclusion in the World Cup squad. The Barbados-born fast bowler has that raw pace and it was on display in the first 10 overs.
The 24-year-old first pinned Hashim Amla on the helmet and forced him to retire in the fourth over.
Archer kept troubling South African batsmen with his pace and managed to induce an edge of Aiden Markram’s willow when he was on 11. The right-arm pacer then targeted du Plessis with short deliveries and that forced the South African skipper to go for a needless pull shot that ended up ballooning straight into the hands of the fine leg fielder.
De Kock and van der Dussen then survived a couple of close calls but the former made sure South Africa were never too behind the required run rate. The wicketkeeper-batsman was calculative against Adil Rashid and Moeen before taking the attack to Liam Plunkett. Meanwhile, van der Dussen too started to get his act together after he smacked Moeen for 6, 4 and 4 in the 21st over.
After getting to what was his sixth 50-plus score in his last seven innings, de Kock was caught at fine leg against the run of play, becoming Plunkett’s first victim. Before the dust had settled, Duminy was caught at long off while going for a needless heave while Pretorius was run out in the very next over as South Africa were reduced to 144 for 5.
After van der Dussen became Archer’s third victim, Amla once again walked out to bat and had to face the wrath of Archer’s pace, but it was Plunkett who bounced him out for 13.
While England were outstanding with bat and ball, they were simply unbelievable on the field. Their ground fielding was superb and if that wasn’t enough, Stokes pulled off one of the greatest catches in the history of the game to send Phehlukwayo back for 24. Phehlukwayo had slog swept Rashid’s first delivery of the 35th over towards deep mid-wicket where Stokes timed his jump to perfection and took a reverse-cupped one-handed blinder.
Stokes was then asked to bowl and the all-rounder scalped the final two wickets to wrap up what was a perfect outing for him and England.