As the first T20I drew to a close, England looked like they had everything under control on a balmy Wednesday evening in East London. With seven balls to go, a victory and a series lead seemed to be a formality. Just a matter of crossing the i's and dotting the t's. Until, suddenly, it wasn't all under control. The formality rather quickly turned into calamity.
England needed just a run a ball from those last seven deliveries of their innings. They had five wickets in hand to boot and captain Eoin Morgan and Moeen Ali at the crease. It should have been a gimme. Cricket Betting Tips It was a gimme. Instead, they lost four wickets and mustered just five runs to fall short of South Africa's total. Lungi Ngidi's final over was impressive but England's failure to get over the line was more down to batsmen error than bowler induced. Pressure is a funny old thing.
Both Morgan and Tom Curran were caught on the boundary, needlessly so. The captain had just taken 14 runs off his previous three balls but then holed out when a single would have done to get him on strike for the final over. "With all the games I've played I'd have liked to see it through," he admitted after the game. Two balls later, Curran played a similar shot with five runs needed at a run a ball and with Moeen at the other end. Another single should have been the order of the day rather than a hoick to the boundary. Then, when Moeen finally did get on strike, he advanced down the wicket and yorked himself.
It was a frustrating end to an indifferent performance from the tourists, albeit one that still should have been good enough to secure the victory.
In truth, things had started to go wrong earlier than the last seven deliveries. The confusion and poor game management of the middle order dogged the entire final third of England's innings. After all, at 14.1 overs, the score was 132 for 2 and England were coasting. The following delivery, Jason Roy, who had been brutalising South Africa's bowling, was deceived by a slower ball bouncer to be caught. That was the start of his side's descent to defeat. They lost seven wickets for 44 in the space of the final 5.5 overs.
The muddled approach suggested a lack of clarity in what the batsmen were trying to do. Finish the game quickly or get them in singles? Perhaps there was a plan but England just couldn't execute it on the day. Sometimes that just happens although for an experienced set of players, the extent of the collapse was surprising. Or perhaps the lack of clear-headedness stems from a lack of clarity about the personnel, positions and roles in England's middle order. After all, it is the main area of concern for Morgan as he looks ahead to the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year. Who should bat from spots five to seven, and in which order, looks no closer to being resolved.
Today, Joe Denly, whose number of innings outside the top four in his nearly 200 T20 matches can be counted on one hand, came in at five, ahead of Ben Stokes. It was a surprising move considering Stokes' proven ability to get England over the line in tight chases but more than that, picking Denly for the finisher role in the first place doesn't add up. He has never been a middle order player in T20 country cricket yet England are seemingly determined to try and turn him into one at the age of 33.
There are other, better options. It's hard to think of a good reason why Stokes, England's best all-format batsman, should not bat at five with the way this team is currently set up. Moeen, such a force with the bat in T20 cricket for Worcerstershire, could be moved up to bat at number six. He feels wasted a place lower than that and England could then bring in Sam Curran, a better lower order hitter than Denly, a seven.
Another option would be for Dawid Malan, and his T20I average of over 50, to bat at number four with Morgan shifting into the middle order where he has such success for England at the start of his career. His innings of 52 from 34 balls tonight proved once again that he has the power game to be England's finisher and he certainly has the temperament to do the job.
Then there is the question of where Jos Buttler should bat. While his record at the top of the order in T20 cricket, for England and the Rajasthan Royals, is outstanding, England have a surfeit of other high-quality top order options who could do a fine job. They would not lose much by having Buttler down at five or six, positions he has played most of his T20I cricket, even if the management are currently reluctant to move him.
But whatever combination England end up with for the World Cup, it is obvious that in Stokes, Morgan, Moeen, Buttler and Malan they already have the raw talent to make a decent combination. It's just about getting them in the right order. That doesn't appear to be the case just yet, however.
Of course, England will hope to learn their lessons from this defeat. They have proved adept at doing so in the past under Morgan's leadership and there is little reason to think that they can't do so again. "Even in a position of needing seven off the last over, with new guys coming in, we expected to win that game," Morgan told Sky Sports. "But it's a great game to play in because you get a feel for where guys are at, what skill level they can produce, and how their temperament is. So in terms of actually improving, I think it's great for us."
South Africa deserve their fair share of credit for the way they forced England into errors as well. As Morgan pointed out, Ngidi was excellent, particularly in his final two overs, as were Tabraiz Shamsi and Andile Phehlukwayo. All three squeezed the life out of England in the second half of their innings. Shamsi was a case in point. He may not have picked up a wicket but his four overs cost just 25 runs and helped reign the tourists back in at the time when they looked like they would zoom out of sight.
South Africa played some fine cricket all told. But England will be in no doubt that this was a game they let slip away.