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Jos Buttler and England race past South Africa after Alex Hales’ 99

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07-02-2016

Since the last World Cup we have marvelled at the derring-do of England’s one-day cricketers. They have played technicolour cricket, self-destructing occasionally, but always aggressive.

But here, until an astounding little cameo from Jos Buttler, who batted like a millionaire, it was their discipline and calm assessment of the conditions that ensured a fine five-wicket victory over a bruised South African side, who now trail 2-0 in a five match series.

“That was hugely satisfying”, said Eoin Morgan. “We’ve only played on a surface like this once recently and it shows we’re not just a crash bang wallop side. We can play “proper” cricket”.

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England were canny and competent in the field, restricting South Africa to 262-seven. Then they paced their run-chase clinically. Alex Hales resolutely guided England towards their target. He has batted more fluently, but this was not a surface that encouraged fluency. He has never played a more important innings for England in this format. He calmly soldiered on until he contrived to become the first man to be out on 99 in both the T20 and 50 over formats.

The loss of three wickets quickly prompted a few tremors, but Buttler was not too bothered, especially after he had hit Imran Tahir for three consecutive sixes, all shots beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. Moeen Ali was an eager accomplice in a rapid unbroken 61 run partnership. And suddenly the match was not close anymore. “It was in the balance until that Tahir over,” said Morgan.

At the start South Africa batted cagily by modern standards. It was as if they had studied the recent records and proceeded accordingly. In the last two ODIs here the first innings score was 262 (although in 2013 the game against Pakistan was reduced to 45 overs per side) and the matches went to the wire.

So they knew from the outset that 262 should be a competitive target. So we witnessed a throwback to earlier, more pedestrian times.

There were some sleepy middle overs when both sides seemed content as runs came but at a sedate pace. Not that anyone was bothered by the lack of pyrotechnics. The sun shone from a cloudless sky; the breeze was brisk, the ground was full and the St George’s brass band melodiously greeted Reece Topley’s first over. This is a wonderful stage for cricket even if the pitch prevents an automatic avalanche of runs. As a diversion it was intriguing to see batsmen struggle to time the white ball.

Despite an innings of 73 from AB de Villiers South Africa were unable to run riot. Topley disposed of Hashim Amla with a fine delivery, which looked even better when the batsman’s feet were glued to the crease. Quinton de Kock could not rediscover the magic of Bloemfontein and he wasted a review when given out lbw to Ben Stokes.

Now De Villiers and Faf du Plessis, who first started forging partnerships over two decades ago, carefully restored the situation. Morgan soon introduced both his spinners and he would not relieve either of them until they had completed their ten overs. Both Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali found some turn and were treated respectfully.

Rashid, who somehow looks more confident after his expedition to the Big Bash, found the edge of Du Plessis’s bat and Chris Jordan took the catch at slip. Ali’s figures were dented by six overthrows, which made one question whether the machismo of routinely hurling the ball at the stumps was worthwhile, but they were still pretty good.

JP Duminy, who would add 107 with his captain, was watchful. He was dropped behind the stumps on 35, a catch Jos Buttler would expect to take nine times out of ten. England’s wicketkeeper is the most phlegmatic of men, but then I imagine you have to be exceedingly phlegmatic to banish from the mind the sudden advent of a £385,000 contract for six weeks work (was this the reason South Africa omitted Chris Morris, who acquired a staggering £700,000 contract in the Indian Premier League?).

With ten overs left De Villiers, who had batted in a mortal manner, decided to open his shoulders. He swung hard at a delivery from Stokes, which looked destined to escape the grasp of the man at mid-wicket until the realisation came that the fielder was Jordan, who sprinted back to complete a superb catch. As in Bloemfontein De Villiers succumbed to a moment of brilliance in the field.

De Villiers’ wicket is always vital and South Africa never recovered much momentum. In their last ten overs they mustered 64-four. All of England’s bowlers had bowled reliably. Topley was rewarded with the biggest haul of wickets and there was nothing unjust about that.

England’s response was hampered by the early dismissal of Jason Roy, who was bowled by a fine delivery from Kyle Abbott, which zipped through a substantial gate. Joe Root accompanied Hales in an old-fashioned, Tykish manner, relying on scurried singles rather than boundaries until he edged a delivery from Abbott on to his stumps.

Morgan sought to up the tempo and did so briefly until De Villiers made a tricky catch, running back from mid-on look ridiculously easy. This was followed by a nightmarish six-ball duck from Stokes. He might have been out twice lbw to Tahir but Umpire Cloete was equally ill-at ease out there. Then Stokes was bowled by Morkel.

It might have been tricky from there until Buttler produced the little gem that might have added a couple of hundred thousand dollars to his IPL value if the auction had been on Sunday.

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