Jason Roy roared back into form with a masterful 79-ball hundred but England’s batting collapse saw South Africa snatch an unlikely victory on Jofra Archer’s international return.
Roy has had a prolonged lean run but registered his first 50-plus score in 15 international innings with 113 off 91 deliveries in the first of three ODIs against the Proteas in Bloemfontein.
He put on 146 in 19.3 overs with fellow opener Dawid Malan, who amassed 59 off 55 balls, but England badly lost their way thereafter in a chase of 299, all out for 271 in 44.2 overs to lose by 27 runs.
Below the openers, only captain Jos Buttler (36) reached 20 for the tourists on an easy-paced pitch, with Anrich Nortje claiming four for 62, while Sisanda Magala collected an important three-wicket haul.
South Africa posted 298 for seven with Rassie van der Dussen making 111 off 117 balls but Sam Curran checked their progress on more than one occasion to finish with figures of three for 35 off nine overs.
While the player of the tournament at last year’s T20 World Cup continues to excel for England, Archer toiled in the 30 degrees heat in Bloemfontein with minimal reward, encouragingly getting through 10 overs but taking one for 81 – the most he has conceded in a limited-overs international.
Archer believes he is at “about 80 per cent” fitness so some rust was inevitable – and he conceded 20 runs in an ugly nine-ball over before his spell finished on a brighter note with Wayne Parnell’s wicket. His day ended on a forgettable note after being dismissed for a four-ball duck.
But he regularly operated in the high 80mph range, topping out at 89mph, and with England cautioning against expecting an explosive return, his display will not be an issue for the double world champions.
While Roy was backed by England, he averaged 12.5 in the SA20 this month with a top-score of 33 in eight knocks, but he clipped his third ball here for four as the chase began in a hail of boundaries.
Malan took three fours in an over off the wayward Kagiso Rabada while Roy found his timing with pace on, unleashing some trademark drives before welcoming Aiden Markram’s spin into the attack with a booming hit over long-off.
Roy motored along after the powerplay in a way South Africa did not, peppering the rope to get ahead of the rate, with paceman Nortje and left-arm wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi particularly expensive.
That proved important as Malan’s downfall, mistiming a pull off Magala, led to a mini-collapse from 146 without loss to 152 for three as Ben Duckett and ODI debutant Harry Brook fell cheaply.
Roy reached three figures by pulling Nortje for his 11th four, celebrating with a mighty swing of the bat, before clubbing Shamsi for a fourth six. He fell on the pull looking to clear the boundary again off Rabada and England still required 110 off 125 balls.
Captain Buttler flickered after being struck by a Magala bumper early on but his departure, nicking off to Nortje, after Moeen Ali had given Magala his third wicket by pulling to deep midwicket, gave South Africa fresh impetus.
The hosts were in dire need of victory to boost their World Cup qualification hopes and Nortje bounced out David Willey and Archer, with Rabada taking the edge of Curran, before Shamsi had last man Olly Stone caught and bowled to spark frenzied celebrations.
Roy’s day had started with a mis-field after South Africa batted first, with the ball whistling through his fingers and setting away Quinton de Kock, who alongside Temba Bavuma racked up the boundaries.
Archer leaked 41 in his first five-over burst, struggling to find a consistent line and length with little movement on offer. He was driven down the ground three times by De Kock and went the distance off both openers – although Bavuma’s six came via a streaky top-edge.
Moeen’s introduction in the ninth over redressed the balance as Bavuma carelessly clothed to mid-on for 36 while Curran used his variations wisely and a devilish bouncer surprised De Kock on 37. South Africa had 10 fours and two sixes in the powerplay but just one boundary between overs 11 and 20.
David Miller counterpunched with a mow that just cleared substitute fielder Chris Woakes while the returning Archer was driven for back-to-back fours by Van der Dussen, who moved quietly to an understated 110-ball ton.
He cast off the shackles from an Archer free hit with a furious heave for six while the England bowler threw in a wide and another no-ball in a chastening penultimate over. Curran limited the damage to under 300 and prised out Van der Dussen for 111 and Miller for 53 to catches in the deep.
Either side of those dismissals, Archer had Parnell caught at backward point with a rare slower ball in his final over for some overdue reward.
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