It was comfortable in the end.
But, at times, England’s 104-run victory over South Africa was a nervy and even slightly subdued way to open a World Cup.
The hosts were not able to bat at their brutal best on a tricky pitch and the Proteas were in contention of chasing down 312.
Enter England all-rounder Ben Stokes to light up a grey day at The Oval and ensure a memorable start to the tournament.
That incredible catch
Stokes has done astounding things in the field for England before but on Thursday he pulled off one of the greatest catches of all time…
Running towards the mid-wicket boundary, Stokes leapt backwards and plucked Andile Phehlukwayo’s powerful sweep shot out of the air with his right hand.
Jaws dropped, hands went up and a joyous roar rang out.
Stokes could not help but laugh as he saluted the crowd and nonchalantly booted the ball away before being mobbed by his delighted, disbelieving team-mates.
“You have to smile. What a catch. He never looked like he was going to get anywhere near it,” said stunned former South Africa captain Graeme Smith on BBC Test Match Special.
“It was a fluke. To be honest I was in the wrong position – if I was in the right position it would have been regulation,” Stokes told BBC Sport.
“That feeling for about five seconds when I was facing the crowd and everyone was cheering, it was phenomenal.”
Phenomenal? BBC Sport readers certainly thought so…
- Justin Warhurst: I’m at The Oval and that was the best catch I have ever seen and probably ever will see.
- Daniel Stevanato: Can we just declare the Catch of the Tournament competition closed right now? Absolute scenes, even for Stokes that is unreal!
- Charlie Thomas: One of the best catches the game has ever seen, I’d say. The faces in the crowd in the last replay are priceless!
- Issy Savin de Larclause: Nah, Stokes. That was wild.
‘A full day out’
That catch was the highlight of a superb all-round performance by Stokes.
He hit 89 off 79 balls – his highest score in all forms for England since his altercation in Bristol in 2017 – to help guide England to 311-8 after Jonny Bairstow was out second ball to leg-spinner Imran Tahir.
Stokes’ rocket throw from the deep ran out Dwaine Pretorius, he pouched a straightforward catch to remove JP Duminy and then claimed two wickets in as many balls to finish South Africa off.
That, as England captain Eoin Morgan put it, is called having “a full day out”.
“When he does that it’s extremely entertaining and great for the game,” said Morgan. “We see a lot of him in training, doing stuff like that all the time. You just shake your head.”
Former England captain Michael Vaughan said: “Any team’s success is generally geared around the all-rounder. Ben Stokes finding form in the first game of the World Cup is a huge boost for England.”
‘Archer could become a hero very quickly’
Even with Stokes, Morgan, Joe Root and Jason Roy passing 50, England’s total looked only about par, leading one fan to shout through the TMS commentary box window: “Is that enough?”
“We have no idea,” replied BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew.
Jofra Archer was determined to make the answer: “yes, plenty”.
Bowling with a venomous combination of pace, bounce and accuracy, Archer took 3-27 and showed exactly why he surged into the World Cup squad after qualifying to play for England in March.
First, he struck Hashim Amla on the grille of his helmet, requiring the opener to retire hurt to undergo concussion tests. He was able to return but only after South Africa’s chances had faded.
Archer then got Aiden Markram nicking off to Root and induced a loose shot from captain Faf du Plessis to be caught before returning to remove Rassie van der Dussen after another miscue to a ball that bounced sharply.
“South Africa were caught out by his pace and bounce,” said Smith. “Jofra Archer will become a hero in England very quickly if he keeps bowling this way.”
BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew
Archer has an incredible natural talent. He is one of those fast bowlers who makes it look incredibly easy.
There are some who have a very easy, rhythmical approach that doesn’t seem to take a lot out of them. Archer just coasts.
He’s got so much at his disposal and, because he used to playing in the big time in Twenty20 leagues, he is incredibly relaxed in international cricket. He has taken to it so easily.
Archer gives England an edge. He hit Amla, one of the game’s finest players, in the grille because Amla was slow on the delivery.
Archer gets top-order players out. These days, you have to take wickets in one-day cricket. You need something different, and that is what Archer brings.
Is cricket coming home?
It soundtracked England’s run to the football World Cup semi-finals last summer.
And as Morgan’s side wrapped up victory, a reworked version of Three Lions played out at The Oval.
There were chants of “cricket’s coming home”. Many posted the same on social media. Others complained it was embarrassing and unnecessary.
Whatever your view, the clinical way England beat challenging opponents here may well have raised belief this side can finally end 44 years of hurt in men’s World Cups.