x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Champions Trophy: England two games away from one day title

Glory on the world stage in ODIs has always eluded the hosts but they take on South Africa with hope, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Bowlers James Anderson, left, and Stuart Broad, centre, will hope to deliver for their captain Alastair Cook, right, as England gear up for the remaining two matches to a possible maiden world title. Michael Steele / Getty Images
Bowlers James Anderson, left, and Stuart Broad, centre, will hope to deliver for their captain Alastair Cook, right, as England gear up for the remaining two matches to a possible maiden world title. Michael Steele / Getty Images

In Tests it has always been an engrossing rivalry and is currently establishing itself as the premier one, but in the limited-overs game, England and South Africa seem to barely know each other.

They have met enough times sure, but it still seems more like an occasional gathering of 22 men in pyjamas, 11 of whom will at the end of it call themselves the winners.

The most compelling rivalries find ways for fate to throw them together at global events, usually at the cut-throat end of a tournament; they rub themselves up the wrong way so much they create heat.

When South Africa and England take on each other in the Champions Trophy semi-final today at The Oval there will not be the kind of tension that sucks in even the neutral supporter the way semi-finals are usually meant to.

This just happens to be a semi-final between two sides who happened to get through their group stages.

The other semi, between Sri Lanka and India, has all manner of baggage. It is a regional rivalry, a replay of the last World Cup final, and even, for once, a contest with some meaning given how often the two sides do play meaningless bilateral series.

It is not as if England and South Africa have not clashed at global events. Actually they do fairly regularly: this will be the 10th time the sides have met in either the World Cup or the Champions Trophy. But rarely has the clash meant anything, usually arriving as a group game, or at best, a game in the Super Sixes (or eights) of World Cups.

The only time they played with stakes as high as this was, of course, the 1992 World Cup semi-final, South Africa's first major tournament on return to international sports after Apartheid, when England were at their peak as an ODI side.

That ended in a fiasco, England winning thanks to a farcical rain rule. If it is difficult to imagine history repeating itself as farce again, it is worth noting that rain and thunderstorms are forecast and there is no reserve day set aside.

Already the weather has played a part, affecting as many as four of the 12 matches played. This is the problem with tournaments in England; more than any other potential host in its most cricket-friendly season, England is beholden to rain.

Fortunately, there is enough context and form in each side to overlook the underwhelming total sum of their rivalry.

South Africa will always carry the same back story into every big limited-overs tournament until they end up winning one.

They could lose any which way here; they are not even clear favourites in this game, or even in this tournament, and they do not currently have a particularly settled ODI line-up (though it is developing quickly) but if they go out, then it will be seen, by default, as another "choke" in a long line of "chokes".

They looked uneven through the group stages, winning only one of their group games. Injuries have not helped, shorn of their first-choice new-ball attack and, to a much lesser degree, maybe the absences of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis have also played some kind of role.

But India apart, they have the most potentially destructive batting order in the last four and if England catch them on a good day, then that could set the tone.

The flip-side is that England's bowling attack is probably the best in the last four, or at least their pace attack is.

If conditions are right and the ball swings - old or new - then James Anderson and Stuart Broad could be the decisive influences.

South Africa at least have one global 50-overs trophy to show off - the first Champions Trophy in 1998, though that was more low-key and of a much different nature back then.

England have not won a 50-over global title ever, despite thrice being World Cup finalists and once runners-up in the Champions Trophy (in 2004).

They have batted a little like ODI cricket used to be in their peak in the late 1980s and early '90s, taking time, keeping wickets in hand and exploding at the death.

It has not been a particularly popular strategy, and Jonathon Trott is emblematic of the divided opinion it induces.

But England will not care because it has worked and worked well so far. Another two wins and nobody will be able to complain.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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