Here at last comes cricket’s chance to dominate the sporting agenda. England and South Africa gathered at Headingley on the eve of the first of three ODIs, which both sides acknowledge are the ideal preparation for next month’s Champions Trophy.
The sun was shining in Leeds, with the promise of another fine day on Wednesday. The “superstars” of the IPL, such as Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, were out there strutting their stuff; the pitch looked brown and brimful of runs, and even the old rugby stand seemed in unusually pristine condition in anticipation of an eager audience.
Yet the mood was inevitably sombre. Both camps offered their sympathy and prayers to the victims of the Manchester atrocity but there was never any doubt that the match would proceed. Even so, South Africa’s tour manager, Mohammed Moosajee, did not try to hide the obvious apprehensions of his touring party.
“As you can understand, we have some genuine concerns,” Moosajee said. “The players are uneasy. There was a lot of chatter at the breakfast table. I’m happy to say we’ve had constant communication from the ECB and their security manager [Reg Dickason]. There have been guarantees put in place that security arrangements will be supplemented, starting today. We’re told there will be a more visible police presence at the stadium, at practice sessions as well as at the hotels. As things stand there’s no mention of us even thinking of abandoning the tour.”
Security concerns are now an occupational hazard around the globe and not only for cricketers, so both captains were able to focus upon the task in hand – and of course the need for “momentum” before the Champions Trophy in June. De Villiers is a polite man and was hardly likely to quibble with the notion of England as favourites (even though his side have just beaten Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and are comfortably clear at the top of the ODI rankings).
“They are one of the favourites. They have an all-round balance with a few bowling options; they bat deep and they are mostly athletes. With the batting strength of both sides these ODIs should be very exciting.”
Eoin Morgan also sees the virtue of playing the best in preparation for the Champions Trophy, where England meet Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia in the group stage. In the captain’s mind England’s revival may have started in South Africa, where they lost a thrilling series 3-2 in February 2016.
“I thought we learned lessons from South Africa,” he said. “You can lose a game but not lose a lesson. That is always a message from our coach and backroom staff. Now I think it’s important that we go out and play the way we have done in the last two years because what we have done has worked.” Morgan does not want any creeping conservatism when his side is subjected to what is essentially a string of knockout matches in the Champions Trophy.
Morgan would not reveal his side for Wednesday’s match but he confirmed that Moeen Ali, omitted against Ireland, would play, presumably alongside Adil Rashid. Morgan also hinted that Jonny Bairstow would remain on the sidelines, despite his recent swashbuckling (albeit against Ireland).
“It’s always hard to leave Jonny out,” Morgan said. “He never lets us down and this is his home ground but we’ve got a very strong top seven; we’ve proved that as a unit.” Which hardly suggests that Bairstow should have an especially early night – particularly since the match does not start until 2pm BST anyway.
Everyone is fit, available and “raring to go” for the first time in a while, a happy situation not matched by the likely Test squad since the extent of Jimmy Anderson’s injury, acquired at the start of the recent Roses match, was confirmed by the England and Wales Cricket Board. The announcement was ominous: “He has a tear to his right groin and will be fully assessed on Wednesday by the medical team to understand the full extent of his injury.”
Anderson will miss Lancashire’s Championship match against Yorkshire, starting on 2 June. It is possible he may recover in time for the first Test on 6 July but there can be no guarantees with an injury of this type.
Meanwhile, England’s Indian Premier League triumvirate, who were allowed to stay in India the longest (Stokes, Buttler and Chris Woakes) are in a happier frame of mind and body. Morgan, a constant advocate of the benefits of playing in the IPL, has spied no weariness.
“The IPL is a tough tournament but Spain [where the squad spent four days last week] was brilliant for us: a lot of hard work and team bonding. Probably the three guys who missed out on the Ireland games came back with more enthusiasm. They were delighted to be home and on the cusp of a big tournament. They are fired up for it.”
Getting the bowling combination right is trickier for Morgan than the batting. He likes the variety of a left-armer (David Willey) but the white ball has not been swinging much this summer and it has not been landing precisely where Willey intends. Hence he might struggle to make the final XI at his adopted home.
Even so, Morgan insists on his bowlers “chasing” wickets in a very 21st century way. “If somebody bowls a bouncer with no fine leg, it’s not a problem when they are trying to stay ahead of the batsman, to catch him off guard, especially when he’s ‘in’. Doing something obscure to try to get the batsman out, I don’t mind that at all.”
Such a liberal view may be a gust of fresh air to his bowlers. Whether Morgan will be able to maintain that view at the sharp end of a taut contest with a semi-final or final place at stake in the Champions Trophy in a couple of weeks’ time remains to be seen.
For the moment there is just the hope that cricket can announce itself with gusto to the wider public in 2017 and that it can heighten the sensation that the summer has finally arrived along with the South Africans.
Jimmy Anderson facing long spell on the sidelines with torn groin
Jimmy Anderson is facing an extended spell on the sidelines after the England and Wales Cricket Board announced the seamer has torn his groin.
The 34-year-old, England’s leading Test wicket-taker with 467, collapsed in pain on Friday while bowling for Lancashire against Roses rivals Yorkshire.
He was unable to bowl for the remainder of the match but made a surprise appearance with the bat, making eight not out in seven deliveries at the end of the drawn encounter at Old Trafford.
Anderson will miss the return fixture at Headingley while the ECB’s medical team attempt to determine how bad the injury is. The first Test of the summer is not until 7 July at Lord’s, after the Champions Trophy, leaving plenty of rehabilitation time but it is not uncommon for such complaints to come with a six-week lay-off. PA