As the afternoon sun began to dip in East London, England’s pace bowlers could be seen taking aim at a selection of cricket boots placed on a yorker length in the middle at Buffalo Park – signal of the latest change of tack as the T20 leg of this tour begins on Wednesday.
For what it’s worth, Saqib Mahmood was the most accurate. Tom Curran just behind. Mark Wood took a couple of balls to find his range then hit the target with a startling thunk that sent a plume of unfortunate leather arcing into the air.
Perhaps given the obsession in all sport with marginal gains the boots might have been bright green or red rather than white. But there was a sign in the intensity of England’s training of the importance of the three-match six-day series, with the T20 World Cup in Australia already looming.
England have played nine games of T20 cricket in South Africa all told, and lost seven of them. This time round the shortest form looks set to end the tour with a note of unaccustomed urgency. Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler will return to the team. England’s hierarchy will look to finesse their strongest side in this format.
Wood is likely to play. Despite having managed only five T20 internationals across five years he has a wonderful embryonic record with 11 wickets from only 105 balls bowled. More than that he still carries the glow of Eoin Morgan’s World Cup 50-over team in an England set-up presented now with the chance to become the first nation to double up in both white-ball forms.
“I don’t think it’ll be much different,” Wood said. “I feel like it’s a continuation of that; it’ll be the same sort of messages from Eoin, the same plans, the stuff we hold tight and values as a group will still be there, so I imagine we’ll try to go about it in a similar way to which we have in the past.”
Whatever the format, Wood clearly believes England can beat anyone else out there. “Yes, I don’t see why not. If you didn’t believe that you wouldn’t be playing for England. So I think we can beat anybody, we’ve just got to bring an intensity and a level that can match South Africa, who without doubt are class.”
The top order looks fairly set in terms of personnel. Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy are likely to open, although Buttler, so effective there in the Indian Premier League, is also an alluring option anywhere in the top three.
Morgan and Stokes make up the rest of the locked-in top five. After which Moeen Ali or Joe Denly are likely to come in at No 6, with Tom Curran, Adil Rashid, Chris Jordan and Wood the best bets to bowl, pace, slower-ball variations and well-worn off and leg spin. Jordan will be keen to show his high-class death-bowling chops from the franchise scene, as opposed to the smattering of slightly missed yorkers David Miller feasted on in Johannesburg.
The pitch is expected to be a little slow and a little dead. But the boundaries are short and the open grassy banks an attractive spectacle. The most remarkable landmark so far is a huge red KFC bucket at cow corner into which lucky spectators can be invited, there to watch the cricket from on high while being served deep fried chain-branded chicken, which certainly sounds like one half of a good time.
England will also be greeted by a familiar face in the 36-year-old Dale Steyn, who will help to lead the attack in a young South Africa T20 team. Steyn, the greatest fast bowler of his generation, has retired from all forms of cricket apart from T20, and was recalled to this team in March.
He looks like a happy short-form veteran too, bowling with some hostility in the nets, and speaking of his love, still, of putting batsmen “on their backsides”. He said: “If I’m going to play one more game I’m going to try to take a wicket every ball, I’m not going to go: ‘I’m just going to defend a boundary here.’ I’ll give it a good crack.”