Mercurial England defy the odds
England lived up to their billing as the most enigmatic team in this World Cup as they pulled off an improbable victory over South Africa.
Few in Chennai and beyond gave England much hope after they were bowled out for just 171 at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, even less when South Africa progressed to 63 without loss in their reply.
However, they responded to the prospect of seemingly inevitable defeat with a bowling display founded on skill and brimming with spirit.
Capitalising on a dry, dusty surface that encouraged spin and reverse-swing in equal measure, England twice induced collapses which instilled fear in the South Africa camp, before another spate of wickets sealed the most memorable of triumphs.
Having wasted their promising start, a middle-order wobble in which four wickets fell for the addition of three runs in five overs left the Proteas reeling on 127 for seven, and in serious danger of throwing away a game that appeared to be heading in only one direction for much of the day.
Morne van Wyk and Dale Steyn threatened to take them home by adding 33 for the eighth wicket, but Tim Bresnan removed the former with 12 needed for victory and Stuart Broad struck twice in four balls to seal a stunning six-run win with 14 balls unused.
Aside from the instant joy this result will bring, which will be particularly potent given the soul-searching that followed their shock defeat on Wednesday, England can take immense heart from climbing to the top of Group B - if only temporarily.
Broad finished with 4-15, James Anderson rediscovered his mojo to the tune of 2-16 from six overs, and Graeme Swann’s one wicket from 10 overs costing 29 runs did not reflect the immense discomfort he caused the batsmen.
The travails of all but Hashim Amla, who top-scored with 42 for South Africa, merely highlighted the quality - and value - of Ravi Bopara’s innings.
He marked his return to the England side by making 60 from 98 balls, while Jonathan Trott’s 52 was the only other score of note in an innings which bore many similarities to South Africa’s. As it turned out, their 99-run stand, constructed from the depths of 15 for three, proved crucial.
One of four spinners employed by South Africa, slow left-armer Robin Peterson removed Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen in the first over of the game, and Ian Bell in the fifth, en route to figures of 3-22, while leg-spinner Imran Tahir hurried through the tail to claim 4-38.
In a nod of appreciation to Graeme Smith’s tactics, Strauss handed Michael Yardy the new ball and introduced Swann in the seventh over, but South Africa had made sizeable inroads into England’s total by the time they lost their captain.
Smith rarely looked comfortable against the turning ball, and it was no surprise when Swann found extravagant turn and bounce to have him caught behind off his glove - after the input of the TV umpire.
Broad, reverse-swinging a ball that was just 17 overs old, accounted for Amla, who played on via a dead bat, and Jacques Kallis, caught behind driving loosely.
The balance swung back towards South Africa as AB de Villiers and Francois Du Plessis put on 42 for the fourth wicket, but both were among the three wickets to fall in 11 deliveries as England rallied once more.
A wonderful Anderson leg-cutter squared up de Villiers and clipped his off bail so faintly that no-one noticed at first; Bell’s flicked throw from short-leg punished Du Plessis for setting off down the pitch; JP Duminy had his off stump uprooted by Anderson two balls after a caught-behind verdict had been overturned; and Peterson wafted recklessly outside off stump.
Van Wyk, despite lacking fluency, combined well with Steyn to take South Africa to within sight of the finishing line, only to play on trying cut a delivery that demanded a straighter bat.
Steyn fell in the next over, lbw to Broad’s first ball back, which tailed in through conventional swing rather than the reverse variety, and the pace bowler applied the coup de grace when he located Morne Morkel’s edge moments later.
Peterson’s earlier intervention with the ball appeared to have set England on their way to a defeat which would have left their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals in serious jeopardy.
If there was an element of blame attached to the batsman after Strauss gave Peterson the charge - in failing to get to the pitch of the ball, he dragged his drive to deep midwicket - Pietersen could do little about the delivery from around the wicket which drew him forward and found the outside edge. Kallis completed the job at slip.
Like Strauss, Bell also perished using his feet. Lured out of his crease, a tame defensive push merely looped back to Peterson, who dived full length to his left to claim another excellent catch.
Survival thus became the chief ambition for Trott and Bopara, although they rotated the strike well enough to ensure their half-century alliance came up off a far from laborious 72 balls.
Strokes of aggression remained a rarity - Bopara’s straight six off Duminy, the seventh bowler employed by Smith with the game only 19 overs old , was an exception - and Tahir’s reward for maintaining the pressure was a splendid return catch off Trott.
Matt Prior became the first victim of pace, 36 overs into the match, when Morkel found the open face of his bat, immediately after Bopara had brought up an 87-ball fifty also containing two fours.
The greatest blow to England’s ambitions of posting a testing total, however, was the loss of Bopara, who was palpably lbw playing back to delivery from Morkel that kept a shade low.
Bresnan perished in similar fashion, beaten by pace and late inswing from the returning Steyn, before Tahir struck three times in nine balls to mop up the innings.
Yardy sliced to point, Broad was lbw sweeping and Swann was well taken by a running Duminy at long-off. The last five wickets had tumbled for 23 runs.
South Africa’s bowling display was bettered by an exceptional performance in the field, and England knew they had to marry both if they were to stand a chance of winning this game.
Fortunately for those waving St George’s flags, they did so - and how.