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England seeks statement win in Cricket World Cup opener

May 29, 2019
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England's Eoin Morgan speaks during a press conference at The Oval, London, Wednesday May 29, 2019 on the eve of the opening match of the Cricket World Cup. (Nigel French/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — As far as Eoin Morgan is concerned, England’s greatest ever one-day international team will open the Cricket World Cup on Thursday against South Africa.

A team in his image.

Bold, fearless, instinctive.

The captain has done more than most to transform England from no-hopers at the last World Cup to the most exciting team going into the 2019 edition.

After enduring humiliating lessons from a group-stage exit four years ago, Morgan set about pushing England to plan for and win this World Cup, conveniently being staged on home grounds across the next six weeks and four days. The resurgence has been incredible.

Thanks to Morgan’s example and determination, England believes it can smash anyone into submission. If one of their own fails, then someone else will pick up a bat and bludgeon the bowlers. No total seemingly is out of reach. To England, a score of 300 is the bottom line.

The comforts of home and massive expectations are to be embraced, Morgan says, and they have been. The English team hasn’t lost a series of two matches or more at home in four years. They haven’t lost any series anywhere in more than two years. They are ranked No. 1.

But the fortress was breached during the 2017 Champions Trophy, where England, like now, was the bookies’ big favorite on home pitches. In an excellent tournament, England fell flat in a semifinal loss to eventual champion Pakistan. Those days happen, but they don’t happen to England much. Nine players from that 11 are still in the team. Chastened but wiser.

Now it’s just about picking the right lineup from the squad of 15. People have been cleared fit to play, including Morgan, who broke his left index finger last Friday. Morgan said he already knows who is starting the game, but he declined to reveal who on Wednesday.

Everyone will play at some point in the round-robin group stage, but England will seek to make a statement against South Africa at the Oval about wanting a first World Cup trophy more than ever. That this is their championship and their time.

The starting XI is expected to include Jofra Archer, who made his England debut only at the start of this month. The former West Indies Under-19 bowling allrounder qualified for England on shortened residency rules. He has already been identified as an X-factor by Virat Kohli, cricket’s best batsman.

South Africa, meanwhile, will be without one of its best fast bowlers. Dale Steyn’s old right shoulder injury flared in April in the Indian Premier League and he was not ready in time for the start of the World Cup. He was picked in the squad in the expectation he will recover, and South Africa believe he will to be fit to play its third game on June 5 against India.

The South Africa battery will still be impressive. There are Kagiso Rabada, who was over a back injury he sustained on May 1, Lungi Ngidi, coming back from a side strain, Andile Phehlukwayo, and the retiring-but-menacing legspinner Imran Tahir.

The batting is the question mark. It relies on captain Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, and David Miller. Hashim Amla isn’t as feared as he was in his prime, but showed some form by hitting two half-centuries in the warmup matches.

Coach Ottis Gibson has downplayed South Africa’s own need for a win in the tournament opener. His attitude is, if they win, they win, if they don’t, there’s another game on Sunday (vs. Bangladesh).

He’s right. There’s games and time to get over early setbacks. For perhaps the first World Cup ever, South Africa is happy to be the underdog.

England isn’t, which means the hosts have the most to lose.

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