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by Rob Johnston Thursday 18 February 2016
First Twenty20 International - South Africa v England in Cape Town19th February | 18:00 local | 16:00 GMT
Amongst the proliferation of national T20 tournaments, it is sometimes hard to know where international T20 games fit. Are they an irrelevance in a format of the game where franchise cricket dominates or do they have importance in their own right?
International teams play so few T20 games – England have played only seven games in the last two years – so often they lack context and purpose.
Certainly for the next six weeks that will change. International T20 cricket will be front and centre with the World T20 beginning in India in 19 days’ time. The upcoming two-match series between South Africa and England is therefore vital preparation for both teams.
England are genuine contenders for the title; their thrashing of Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates before Christmas was a sure sign that they have the players to thrive on sub-continental pitches.
Their batting is strong and deep and they have variety in their bowling attack but picking their best team could be a challenge. Finding the best combination will be the aim for the series which begins in Cape Town on Friday and continues in Johannesburg on Sunday.
Where Eoin Morgan’s side were criticised in their defeat in the last ODI for being too gung-ho in their approach, this is a characteristic that will serve them well in the shorter form which requires players to play on instinct rather than over-think the game.
In players such as Alex Hales, Ben Stokes and Sam Billings, England have such players.
The batting is stronger than the bowling and picking a batting line-up from Hales, Jason Roy, Joe Root, Morgan, Stokes, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Billings, James Vince provides options and versatility.
England’s trump card is Buttler, his acquisition by Mumbai Indians for the new IPL season proof of his growing profile in white ball cricket. In the warm-up game against South Africa A on Wednesday, Buttler batted at number four and it would be no surprise to see that continue on Friday, with Morgan, who scored 42 off 13 balls in that game, and Root either side.
The bowling is weaker but does have variety. Spinners Ali and Adil Rashid will have an important role to play in India, particularly Rashid who has wicket taking ability in the middle overs, but will play less of a role on the hard and quick surfaces in South Africa.
The uncapped Hampshire spinner Liam Dawson has been included in the World T20 squad after impressing for the England Lions this winter. He will likely get a run out in one of the two games against South Africa.
Steven Finn has also been included for the World T20 in the hope he will recover from the injury that ruled him out of the fourth Test match but he is not being risked in this series. Finn’s recovery will be important as he provides the missing ingredient for Morgan’s attack: pace.
Without Finn, Reece Topley and David Willey will share the new ball with Stokes and Chris Jordan providing further seam options.
The home side will be led by Faf du Plessis and with AB de Villiers, one of the pre-eminent T20 players in the world, South Africa will present a tough challenge.
Like England, the batting looks stronger than the bowling, with Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock presenting a fearsome top order alongside du Plessis and de Villiers.
Also like England, South Africa are sweating on the fitness of their preeminent fast bowler. Dale Steyn’s shoulder injury that ruled him out of much of the Test series has improved for him to be named in the squad. He is vital to the home side’s chances in India but whether they risk him against England remains to be seen.
Kasigo Rabada, Kyle Abbot and Chris Morris will make up the seam bowling attack and David Wiese should also play. It is an attack with plenty of T20 experience.
Imran Tahir, who had a decent one-day series will provide the spinning option alongside left-arm spinner Aaron Phangiso. Phangiso was not in the one-day squad but has taken 13 wickets from nine T20 international games.
South Africa have good recent memories of T20 cricket in India, winning their series against the Indians in the subcontinent 2-0, an impressive result against one of the favourites for the World T20 title.
Past form is largely irrelevant in T20, particularly for international teams because of the scarcity of games, so this series will be tough to call. If the one-day series proved anything though, it is that the likes of Buttler and de Kock can win games on their own. These games could be decided on the performances of one or two players.
With preparations for the World T20 in full swing, both teams will see the importance of these two games. As a result, it should be a series with plenty of intensity and meaning. England look the slightly better side but South Africa have greater experience.
More important games await these two sides but for both sets of players, the prize of playing in a World Cup is at stake. That should mean it is a keenly fought series.
England are an excellent T20 side and look to have a deeper batting line up than the home team. They should win the series.
© Cricket World 2016