So much for new dawns, new cycles, reboots of the reboot. In Cape Town England’s World Cup-winning 50-over team stuttered back into action with a performance that choked on its own ambition early on before falling back on an old-school rescue job from Joe Denly. By the end they were beaten easily under the evening lights as Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma flogged some poor bowling around Newlands.
There may be champion teams in the past roster of World Cup winners who could afford to lose players of the quality of Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Jos Buttler, Adil Rashid and Ben Stokes, all injured or rested here. But on this evidence England are some way short of joining them.
Instead a mixture of fill-ins and next-cabs-off-the-rank looked at times like a trip back to the bad old days. At the halfway point of the match England’s serviceable 258, built around a 91-run seventh wicket partnership between Denly and Chris Woakes, had demanded South Africa produce a record chase on this ground.
They got there without ever looking under pressure, winning by seven wickets with 14 balls to spare. England’s fast-medium bowling lacked bite. The spin of Matt Parkinson and Denly was hit-me stuff. Even the fielding grew a little ragged in the gloaming.
Mainly this was a stage for De Kock, who brought up a beautifully frictionless hundred off 106 balls and looked a class above every other batsman on show.
These are onerous times for De Kock, who enters this series in the crossover role of opener, wicket-keeper and captain in South Africa’s 50-over team. Under the lights he made this triple burden look laughably light, sending the ball skimping away through cover, carving the short stuff with real severity, and generally looking like a man playing this game for fun.
De Kock was untroubled by Sam Curran with the new ball. He warmed to the sight of Joe Root as first change bowler. He spanked Parkinson around with a kind of disdainful grace, like a man casually swatting midges with a badminton racket.
On 67 he stepped down and lifted Tom Curran straight back over his head and on to the black tarpaulin with a joyously free swing of the bat. International sport is not supposed to look this easy.
At the other end Bavuma, in at No 3, compiled his own sparky, nimble-footed 98, playing the spinners with guile and looking far more comfortable against England’s fast-medium attack than he had against real pace.
When Woakes returned for a now-or-never second spell Bavuma swivelled on a heel and hooked him over deep fine leg and out of the ground. With the line in sight he was lbw to the under-bowled Chris Jordan for 98, to the groans of a supportive crowd.
England will strengthen as a matter of urgency before the next game in Durban on Friday. There is a tendency in English cricket to obsess over the future to the exclusion of the present, and the team here had six changes from the World Cup-winning XI, albeit most of them enforced. Banton, an expert T20 opener, came in as a 50-over No 6. Parkinson played his first proper game in three months. Denly, who occupies the role of England’s all-format lucky blanket, provided a plug for the middle order.
England were grateful for his presence. Slow-burn and straight-batted, Denley’s 87 off 103 balls was his first England ODI fifty since 2009, when he opened with Andrew Strauss, Gordon Brown was prime minister and Banton was 10 years old.
It was also a lesson in building a score to suit the conditions after South Africa had won the toss and chosen to bowl on a sunny afternoon.
At which point England spent two hours batting like an own-brand version of themselves, coming on like some woozy, half-glimpsed memory of the early Trevor Bayliss years. There was a carelessness to the stroke-play of the top six.
Jason Roy set off like a train before he was caught at mid-on wafting at the debutant spinner Jon-Jon Smuts. Jonny Bairstow followed doing exactly the same thing to Andile Phehlukwayo.
Eoin Morgan had played five T20 games since the end of the English summer. There was one paddled reverse sweep before he steered Tabraiz Shamsi to slip.
Shamsi makes for a peculiar sight, creeping and flinching his way to the wicket like a wrist-spinning Uriah Heep, then ripping out his left-armers from a low, flat trajectory.
But he was good enough to strangle England’s middle order in an eight-over spell of three for 24 that also featured a spectacular run out of Root, Rassie van der Dussen pinging down the middle stump from backward point.
Banton looked sprightly for a while. He even plays his defensive strokes from the power-hitting stance, knees flexing, front foot facing mid-on, bat raised high. There was a controlled swivel-pull off Phehlukwayo and a fine reverse sweep before he was out lbw to Shamsi.
Sam Curran came and went, also sweeping to Shamsi, and at 131 for six England were melting fast in the mid-afternoon sun.