South Africa vs England: Cricket World Cup preparations begin with places up for grabs

 Ready to go: Harry Brook in the nets at Bloemfontein ahead of the one-day series against South Africa, which starts on Friday   (Getty Images)
Ready to go: Harry Brook in the nets at Bloemfontein ahead of the one-day series against South Africa, which starts on Friday (Getty Images)

Something strange happened last week. England, who have not won an ODI series in their last three attempts, who were whitewashed in Australia before Christmas, who have lost six of their last eight completed matches and who have not even won a game in six months, became the No1-ranked team in the world again.

Their rise to the top of the ICC's somewhat flimsy leaderboard was a quirk of India's victory over New Zealand in the second ODI between the two nations, since rectified by another Indian win in the third, but it served to emphasise the muddled state of international 50-over cricket: something of a forgotten format — certainly, through an English lens — since the World Cup triumph of 2019.

Can anyone remember who is good, who bats where or who has retired from what? It is doubtful.

There are big-picture forces at play that threaten the future of bilateral international cricket, the 50-over game vulnerable long-term, but between now and October, ahead of a World Cup pretty much predestined to be a sporting and commercial success (it is being played in India, after all), focus will, temporarily at least, revert.

England head coach Matthew Mott. (Getty Images)
England head coach Matthew Mott. (Getty Images)

For England — who also have the small matter of an Ashes series between now and then — the build-up begins in earnest in South Africa this week, with the defence of their world title less than nine months away, a far cry from the four-year-long project constructed to deliver home success in 2019.

England have completed just 27 ODIs since being crowned world champions, compared to 82 in the gap between the previous two World Cups. That reduction owes much to changing priorities in the global calendar, but is still marked: India have played almost 50 games across the same period and even Australia have managed 33, despite losing a chunk of fixtures to their own strict Covid border rules.

Of England's 27 matches, most have been difficult to read too far into, some for the fielding of understrength teams, others for being played in quite bizarre circumstances. There was the 2021 series against Pakistan, taken on by a near-third string, following a Covid outbreak in the original squad, the non-event of three matches played on a hangover in Australia days after the T20 World Cup success and a fill-your-boots jaunt to the Netherlands, in the middle of a home Test series, when a half-strength batting line-up scored 498 to set a new world record.

Of course, Test skipper Ben Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum have at least kept a one-day style of cricket in mode. Since the last World Cup, England have scored their ODI runs at a little more than six-an-over; on the recent Test tour of Pakistan, they came only a touch slower, at five-and-a-half. In fact, excluding T20 cricket, England have scored at five-and-a-half or faster in a dozen innings since the start of last summer — five of them were in Test matches.

Short-form skipper Jos Buttler and head coach Matthew Mott now have 13 games before the flight to India — and plenty still to work out, not helped by the fact that Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Stokes, Mark Wood and Liam Livingstone — half of a possible World Cup XI, presuming Stokes comes out of ODI retirement — are all missing from this series for one reason or another.

Jofra Archer, though, is back to boost the bowling, and a few questions will be answered around the batting line-up, where there are, for the first time in a long time, places up for grabs. Harry Brook, already a Test gun and T20 world champion, will make a belated ODI bow, while Jason Roy is surely playing for his international future.

Ben Duckett and Phil Salt must make the most of having first crack at forcing their way in, knowing the likes of Will Jacks and Alex Hales — in sensational form in franchise cricket — are pushing their cases from afar.