After all the hype, all the talk, all the analysis, the 2019 World Cup finally begins on today at The Oval. For the next seven weeks, cricket will take centre stage in England. 10 teams, 48 matches and only one winner in the first World Cup to be staged in this country in 20 years.
The Host, England will open the tournament in South London as favourites but in the knowledge that each one of the nine other teams will provide their own unique challenge. England may have barely put a foot wrong since the disastrous World Cup campaign of four years ago, winning 17 of their 22 series in that time, but luck will play a role in whoever wins the competition. England will hope for just enough to see them through.
Their opponents, South Africa, are getting set at just the right time and have won 16 of their last 21 ODIs. They defeated Sri Lanka in their first warm-up match last week and their second against West Indies was eventually abandoned, in the play Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock was very impressive at the top of the order. South Africa may not be fancied by many but there is real quality and experience in a squad that could well mount a great challenge.
Despite Dale Steyn being ruled out of the opening game due to shoulder injury that curtailed his spell at the IPL, Faf du Plessis can still call on Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo to lead the attack. He also has Imran Tahir, whose leg-spin was so influential in Chennai Super Kings’ run to the IPL final and won purple cap by taking 26 scalps. It is a bowling line-up which will look to take wickets and bowl teams out – du Plessis said as much during the pre-match press conference. With the pace of Rabada and Ngidi and the guile of Tahir, they have the spearheads to trouble any batting line-up even before Steyn returns.
They will be bowling against the best set of batsmen in the competition on Thursday. England have broken new ground in the last four years, setting the standard for free-wheeling run scoring which others have attempted to follow. They are the only side to have scored at better than a run-a-ball since the last World Cup and there has been no sign in either the series against Pakistan or their two warm-up games that they are about to change course now.
If there is one question mark against this order, however, it is whether they can control themselves when conditions are in batsmen’s favour, settling for 300 rather than aiming for 350 and getting bundled out for much less. It was their downfall in the Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan in 2017, and they have previous instances against South Africa in that regard too. In a bilateral series before Champions Trophy, Rabada reduced England to 20 for six at Lord’s on a juicy wicket as the home side’s batsmen went down in a blaze of wafts outside off-stump.
Most teams who win the toss in this World Cup are expected to chase and if South Africa bowl first under grey cloud and on a pitch which was covered with green the day before the game, Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow will need their wits about them to avoid a repeat of that Lord’s debacle.
These teams have met six occasions in World Cups with three wins each and today we find who will lead. Morgan’s men are favourites this time around too but in a one-off game, with the added pressure of it being the first of a World Cup, anything can happen. It’s going to be a exciting, nail-biting seven weeks.
Possible XI for England: Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid
Possible XI for RSA : Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, David Miller, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Imran Tahir