It’s scary when a side barely gets out of second gear yet walk off 100-run victors. But that’s exactly what England did to South Africa in the World Cup opener.
On a slow deck at the Oval, the hosts scraped past 300 – once the ODI gold standard, now a bare minimum. There were murmurs an upset could be brewing, the perpetually glass-half-empty English fans not yet convinced by two years of 50-over dominance.
But the brew went cold quickly, as England’s bowlers made South Africa’s batsmen look second rate. Perhaps they are, but perhaps England are just very good.
The bowler that best exposed South Africa’s top order was the newest member of the squad: Jofra Archer.
A short ball that clattered into grill of Hashim Amla was testament to this, sending the accomplished opener back to the rooms for treatment. While he finished with 3-27, it may as well have been four given the lasting impact the blow had on Amla.
If not for Stokes’ incredible individual performance, Archer would have sewn up man-of-the-match honours in what was his first World Cup game, and just his fourth ODI. Digest that for a moment.
What makes his immediate impact on the international arena more impressive is the rollercoaster few months he’s had, keeping in mind the Sussex seamer is still only 24.
Archer only qualified to play for England in March after the ECB brought forward eligibility rules by four years. He wasn’t selected in the initial World Cup squad, but after a stunning first few games, his impending selection became obvious.
But soon after he was being questioned by all quarters, through no fault of his own.
Some English players and pundits questioned Archer’s right to be in the England World Cup squad. Team-mate Chris Woakes even asked whether his selection would be “morally fair”, while others said his inclusion could disrupt a settled side.
The ensuing debate among some English cricket scribes on both sides of the fence then became touchy, with The Independent‘s chief sports writer Jonathan Liew even suggesting there were double standards at play for Archer, a player of colour.
Where was the outrage with similar selection dilemmas with players born outside of England in the past like Boyd Rankin, Gary Ballance, Keaton Jennings and Tom Curran, the writer asked.
Among this, however, Archer has remained calm – a word used by chief selector Ed Smith to described the languid quick. Now the World Cup is underway, he can get to work and put everything else behind him. His uncharacteristically hearty celebration after taking the wicket of Faf du Plessis was perhaps a release of the pressure valve.
From the outside, it appears bowling comes easy for Archer. Annoyingly easy. A profession that takes enormous toll on most bodies, the 182cm paceman seemingly jogs in and unleashes, hurrying batsmen in a way that few can.
And it’s this ability with the ball that England were searching for in their tilt at a first World Cup title. Sure, Adil Rashid provides X-factor, possessing a skill set that troubles batsmen the world over. Similarly, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler provide a rare ability to change games in short periods of time.
But despite their ODI dominance in the last few years, the World Cup hosts have never really had an edge with their seamers.
Sure Liam Plunkett has played a superb role in the middle overs, while Chris Woakes consistently does the job with the new ball. Mark Wood has shown glimpses, but frequent injuries and dips in form make him unreliable.
But in Archer, England top-up their already surplus supply of X-factor. His equal ability between overs 1-10 and 40-50 make him an invaluable asset for an already-strong side.