Now that the county championship has finished for another year (in depressingly autumnal conditions), it’s time to look ahead to the winter. And the very first event on England’s radar is the T20 World Cup, which starts as soon as 16th October. Can you believe it? The schedule is relentless these days.
Although regular readers will know that I prefer Test cricket, I’m still partial to the odd T20 thrash-fest. It can be rather entertaining after all. Yes, it doesn’t have the same ‘ebb and flow’ (an expression that’s become something of a cliché) but it still has a certain what the French call, “I don’t know what”.
The problem with most T20s, of course, is that the games seem to blend into one and the results are soon forgotten. It’s more about having a good night out, or an entertaining night in, than caring whether your team wins. The games just don’t have enough context.
However, it’s always a different story when T20 World Cups roll round. Suddenly, there’s something to play for. And this year, we have the opportunity to deny Australia glory on their home turf. Wouldn’t it be glorious to see Jos Buttler lift the trophy at a packed MCG?
So who’s your money on? I guess it’s the usual suspects: India will be strong, nobody will fancy playing Pakistan, and New Zealand may punch above their weight, yet again. However, one team that nobody’s really talking about is South Africa – and that’s because the Proteas and World Cups (of any kind) don’t seem to mix particularly well.
This time, however, I have a sneaky feeling that the Cricket Boks might do ok. Conditions down under should suit them – well, more than subcontinental conditions, anyway – and they showed in England a few weeks ago that they’re not to be underestimated in white ball cricket: they tied the ODI series and beat us in the T20s. They’ll also be under less pressure than normal. Many of their big names have called it a day and I doubt they’ll be fancied without the likes of Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers.
Fortunately, however, South Africa do still have the likes of Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, David Miller and even Lungi Ngidi, all of whom should enjoy the Australian wickets. They also have a number of promising young players who might just click. Morale is also pretty high, as Miller makes clear in this interview on the Betway blog, “we’re playing really, really well as a team… and we’ve bought into what we want to do and what works.”
This interview is quite revealing because de Kock and Rabada are quite up front about the demands placed on cricketers these days, especially for those (like the latter) who play all three formats – or should that be four or five formats if we include the bleedin’ Hundred and the Saudi T10?
De Kock, who retired from Test cricket at the age of just 29 (the traitor!), admits that his body feels a lot fresher these days. And therefore his mind feels a lot fresher, too. Rabada agrees, saying, “yeah, it is becoming challenging playing all three formats. You’re playing all year, with all the franchise leagues that are involved as well. Mentally, it takes a toll on you, as it does physically”.
The good news, however, is that Kagiso doesn’t see himself chucking in Test cricket in the near future, although he’s clearly aware that he might have to choose between formats in the future. Let’s hope he’s got a few good years left at the highest level, or does a Ben Stokes and chucks in ODIs instead.
Rabada is a superstar so it’s interesting to read his thoughts on T20 bowling strategies. Obviously, it’s very much a batter’s game these days – too much so in my opinion – so how does he approach things when the batsmen are coming at him? Overall, he stresses the “need to be creative” and think on his feet.
Meanwhile, Ngidi emphasises mind games: “Set one field and then bluff them with a completely different delivery… people say the yorker is still the best ball but these guys have trained to hit that out of the park now”. He makes a good point, although I still think that a perfectly executed yorker is bloody hard to get away. But then again, a perfectly executed yorker is bloody hard to bowl!
Ironically, I think that South Africa are possibly the antithesis of England in T20 cricket. We’re strong in batting but pretty weak in bowling (well, seam bowling anyway). South Africa’s bowling, on the other hand, is stronger than their batting – at least in my opinion.
It’s interesting that England have still been quite competitive in the T20s in Pakistan despite missing a whole host of experienced batters like Buttler, Stokes, and the crocked Bairstow. Fortunately, we have some really exciting players waiting in the wings. In fact, selecting England’s best T20 batting line-up at the mo is a pretty tough ask. The likes of Harry Brook, Phil Salt, and even Ben Duckett have largely taken their opportunities.
The good thing about T20, of course, is that anyone can beat anyone on a particular day. Yes, this can make the format seem like a bit of a lottery, but it does give every team a sporting chance to do well. It’s all about individuals pulling something special out of the bag at crucial moments.
And not choking.
Fortunately, for South Africa at least, their new generation isn’t scarred by past disappointments. They won four out of five games in their last white ball tournament, which somehow wasn’t enough to qualify, and they recognise that, in the words of Ngidi, “luck does play a big part”. I tend to agree.
Consequently, I’m not too worried that England have lost three of their last four T20 series. And I wouldn’t have been worried if we’d lost the deciding game against Pakistan, either. As de Kock reminds us, “at the World Cup, it’s anybody’s game. The team that’s in form is not necessarily going to be the team that’s going to win it”.
He’s not wrong. Just ask Stokes. England were the form team in 2016 T20 World Cup… until the very final over.