Jolted by the aftershocks of tectonic departures elsewhere, England's one-day international team will reassemble at The Oval on Friday set to embark on an unexpected new era of its own. If Andrew Strauss's retirement from 50-over cricket played a part in establishing the peculiar triple-format oligarchy of the last year, his retirement from all cricket has already brought about a paring down, with England's one-day team again led by the Test match captain.
It has been tempting to dwell on the oddities of England's multi-headed interregnum but here at least is an unforeseen benefit. Even in the middle of a series South Africa lead 1-0, which has looked like providing a further chastening footnote to a muddled English summer, Alastair Cook's position as one-day leader is unavoidably strengthened by Strauss's departure. There is even a temptation to wonder whether those players who have prospered under Cook's captaincy will be further motivated by the extension of his powers to five-day cricket.
Cook, as expected, wore his enhanced status lightly during practice on Thursday as England's batsmen stood up to a spell of white-ball chin music courtesy of Graham Gooch's dog walker-style slingshot device, having been driven into The Oval's underground nets by persistent London drizzle. Fine servant though he was, Strauss's retirement does provide a whisper of wider opportunity for some of those present.
Jonny Bairstow and Ravi Bopara have both performed well under Cook in this format. And for Steven Finn the surprise of his long-time county team-mate's retirement was tempered by an understandable excitement at the change of leadership.
"The first time I met [Strauss] I was 14 and bowling in the indoor nets," Finn said. "I pulled one down short to him and he ducked it and fell over. I remember the coach shouting out from the back of the nets 'you just got put on your arse by a 14-year-old'. It was quite surreal, a 14-year-old bowling to an England player and eventually being in the same team as him."
For Finn, who made a significant breakthrough as England's white-ball spearhead under Cook last winter, the captaincy reshuffle surely presents another moment of personal opportunity. At The Oval he was quick to suggest there will be no great change of leadership style but the most notable feature of Cook's one-day captaincy to date has been his aggression in the field, with Finn's own pace bowling often backed by close catchers early in the innings. There appears to be an encouraging chemistry between England's fastest bowler and the man who captained him on his Test debut in Bangladesh.
This would be an apposite moment for England's attack, having struggled to take South African wickets, and indeed fielders to rediscover a little bite. They are defending a fine home record in ODIs. Before the defeat at the Ageas Bowl England had not lost in 16 matches on home soil. The last home series defeat was the hammering by Australia in 2009. The greatest threat to that record is, of course, South Arica themselves, who have both the personnel and the competitive momentum to establish an unassailable 2-0 lead at The Oval. Graeme Smith, who has had plenty of practice at this kind of thing, has already delivered his own tribute to the third England captain vanquished on his watch. "Just wanna congratulate andrew Strauss on a great career as captain and player for England! Fully appreciate the demands of capt your country," Smith tweeted on Thursday.
For England there are likely to be tweaks to the team, at least one of them enforced. The off-spinner Graeme Swann's absence to rest his injured elbow is either a sensible husbanding of resources or further evidence of a team ineffably in decline. Either way it presents another opportunity for James Tredwell to add to his six wickets in six matches over two and a half years.
Bairstow may be recalled at the expense of Bopara, who has endured a difficult summer in more ways than one, and Jade Dernbach could play in place of Tim Bresnan. At the very least a series that might have tailed away a little has been leant an added layer of fascination by Cook's extra set of laurels.
England (from): *A Cook, J Anderson, J Bairstow, I Bell, R Bopara, T Bresnan, J Dernbach, S Finn, †C Kieswetter, E Morgan, S Patel, J Tredwell, J Trott, C Woakes.
South Africa (from): *†AB de Villiers, H Amla, JP Duminy, F du Plessis, D Elgar, I Tahir, R McLaren, A Morkel, M Morkel, J Ontong, W Parnell, R Peterson, G Smith, D Steyn, L Tsotsobe.
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