England face tough task to halt World Cup slide

New Delhi: Arresting their spectacular slide will not be easy when a sloppy England take on in-form South Africa in Sunday’s World Cup Group B match in Chennai.

Andrew Strauss and his team mates must be an emotionally drained bunch, having contributed, often unwittingly, to much of the drama that has brought alive the World Cup.

They nearly allowed their upstart Dutch opponents to upstage them in Nagpur before a narrow escape to victory.

Against India in Bangalore, they starred in a 676-run see-saw contest that ended in a nerve-jangling tie.

The upset they narrowly avoided against the Netherlands finally caught up with them when Kevin O’Brien’s bionic 50-ball century -- the fastest ever in a World Cup -- spurred Ireland to a fairytale three-wicket victory on Wednesday.

“Our World Cup dreams are not over yet,” Strauss said after the setback that has triggered a massive backlash at home with the British media calling it “the greatest humiliation.”

“We need to set things right soon,” he said.

The outcome threw open Group B and England need to get back to winning ways at the earliest opportunity if they do not want to leave their quarter-final prospects to permutations and combinations.

England’s batting has been inconsistent but their main worry has been their wayward bowlers who bled heavily against the Netherlands (292), India (338) and Ireland (329).

Apart from Graeme Swann, none of the English bowlers have done their reputation any good even though they can pass some of the blame to their butter-fingered colleagues.

On the sub-continent’s docile tracks where teams cannot afford to let even half-opportunities fall, England fielders have shown almost criminal profligacy, dropping as many as four catches in the match against Ireland alone.

Going by form, they could not have chosen a stronger team to begin their fightback in the tournament.

South Africa, gunning for their maiden World Cup title in the 50-overs format just like their English opponents, have not demonstrated any perceptible vulnerability.

The depth and balance in their batting and bowling were on full display as they thumped West Indies and the Netherlands with consummate ease.

They have a deep batting order that looks equally comfortable setting a target or chasing one down.

At the top, Hashim Amla has been constantly demonstrating that a batsman need not play ugly shots to succeed in this format.

In Jacques Kallis, they have arguably international cricket’s best all-rounder since Gary Sobers and the beefy number three’s sense of occasion makes him South Africa’s batting mainstay.

Form, however, suggests AB de Villiers as the most threatening South African batsman, having struck back-to-back centuries in the tournament so far.

The additional burden of wicketkeeping, however, is taking its toll on de Villiers, who is nursing a back spasm that forced him to hand over the keeping gloves to Morne van Wyk on Thursday.

South Africa’s bowling, a perfect blend of pace and spin, has been a revelation.

The team shed its pace bias to include three frontline spinners in the 15-member squad, a move that has paid rich dividends in the tournament apart from handing them a pleasant selection dilemma.

While Johan Botha has been an indispensable cog in their one-day set-up, Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir has been a valued addition to the slow bowling attack.

Bureau Report

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