England v South Africa
Wednesday June 19, 10:30 BST
Live on Sky Sports 1
First of all, all of the talk was about England winning the tournament. Then it was about how lucky they would be to qualify out of the group stage. Now, at last, we can say that those initial expectations are being matched.
The truth is that England have looked one of the most complete teams in this tournament. Every batsman has made a crucial contribution. Every bowler has done the same. The introduction of Ravi Bopara has been an inspired move, providing both runs down the order and a decent contribution with the ball. In fact, their one big concern ahead of this game could be Tim Bresnan's wife going into labour and depriving them of the Yorkshireman's services for such an important game. Should that happen, whoever is the fitter of Graeme Swann and Steven Finn will come into the side, although it does then leave England with the frankly-terrifying prospect of Stuart Broad batting at eight.
Even the South Africans must, if they are honest, admit to being surprised that they are in this semi-final. Losing two key players in Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis before the tournament even started was a misfortune. Losing a third, Morne Morkel, in the opening game, bordered on disastrous, especially with Dale Steyn also sidelined by a shorter-term injury. Then they made a complete mess of their opening game, almost got themselves rained out of the tournament and needed an ill-timed slog by West Indies' Kieron Pollard to qualify at all.
The telling thing, though, has been the way that the South Africans have played in getting here. Despite the setbacks, it has been the unsung players who have stepped up. In that almost-catastrophic opener against India it was spinner Robin Petersen who, after being sent in at number three, put on 124 with AB de Villiers to help see them to a score which was crucial in getting their net run rate to a sensible level, even in defeat. Then came Pakistan and a fantastic bowling performance, led by the unsung Ryan McLaren but with fine support from Morkel's replacement Chris Morris and the oft-criticised Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Then, that nail-biting tie with the Windies, set up by a brutal innings from Colin Ingram, the emergency opener covering for the absent Smith. It has truly been a team effort, and if team spirit can get you home then they have a real chance in this game.
Venue and Conditions
England won't be keen on returning to the Oval, scene of their emphatic defeat to Sri Lanka. The vast outfield and the new fielding restrictions should make this a high scoring game, with something over 300 almost mandatory for the side batting first. The forecast is set fair, if overcast, so this will be a good toss to win.
The market on this game is very even, with England slightly favoured at [1.83], whilst the Proteas are just [2.0]. It really is the game which is almost too close to call. The telling thing might come down to just how reliant the South Africa side have been on those hitherto bit part players. This would be a bad time for the running repairs to their line-up to start to fray at the edges, but it could easily happen.
Cometh the hour, cometh the captain. Alastair Cook may not have had the greatest run of form so far, but the England skipper showed the way against New Zealand on Sunday with a ruthless 47-ball innings, which included not one but two sixes. He'll find that sort of hitting harder on the much bigger Oval surface, but the wide open spaces will suit his usual style of play and he loves a big occasion. Back him at around [4.3].
Who you back in this market could well depend upon whether the Proteas bat first or second. If first, then Hashim Amla, on the ground where he made the highest Test score by a South African, is a given. He is their best player against the moving ball and with early movement almost guaranteed at the Oval under the two-ball regime. He won't be great odds, but back him at anything above [4.1]. If they bat second, then Ingram is your man. In that innings against the Windies he looked to have grown into the role of opener and whilst you still wouldn't fancy him when the ball is seaming about (he's too leaden-footed to cope with that), there should be less of that in the second innings and at around [5.0] he'll be hard to ignore.