England’s series victory against Pakistan should give them renewed confidence heading into the T20 World Cup. However, there are still questions that they will hope to answer in their three-match series against Australia which starts on Sunday, writes Katya Witney.
After a transitional home summer which included a captaincy change and white-ball series losses to India and South Africa, England went to Pakistan looking to gain a greater understanding of their best XI ahead of the World Cup. Halfway through the series, progress looked to be slow. Concerns remained over their top order and the fitness of some of their key players, with one of the standouts, Ben Duckett, not in the T20 World Cup squad. But following a successful final leg of the tour in Lahore, they will head to Australia largely pleased with their progress.
The most pressing dilemma for England going into Pakistan was the makeup of their opening partnership, with loss of form ruling out Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow’s foot injury further complicating the issue. In a way, Jos Buttler’s injury, which meant he played no on-field part in the series, simplified matters. It became a straight shootout between Hales and Salt to partner Buttler when he returns. After Hales scored 53 off 40 balls in the opening match, both openers were relatively quiet before Salt’s explosive 88* in the penultimate match of the series bolstered his claim to retain the spot. Whilst neither opener gave a consistent account of their abilities throughout the tour, Salt looked more fluent and Hales’ poor fielding also contributed to Salt appearing, on face value, the more attractive option for England.
However, Hales’ record in Australia, where he was the leading run-scorer in the 2019 Big Bash League, as well as his international experience, count in his favour. Given part of Salt’s attraction in Buttler’s absence was fulfilling a role behind the stumps, the natural progression would be for Buttler to replace Salt as a keeper-batter on his return to the side. Salt showed during the back-end of the Pakistan tour that he will be more than capable of returning to the side should Hales continue to look short of international form in Australia.
Before scoring 78* in the series decider, Dawid Malan’s lack of runs was also troubling for England. His return to scoring means England’s top order can take a more definite shape, with him continuing to occupy the No.3 spot.
Harry Brook’s stellar series with the bat means that he has cemented himself as England’s extra batter in the middle order, with their more experienced campaigners now fitting in around him at No.5. The questions which remain for England’s batting order unexpectedly centre around Stokes, Livingstone and Buttler. With both Livingstone and Buttler returning from injury, they will need to score runs against Australia to enable England’s new batting order to fully establish itself. Buttler’s form before injury this year has been far from his best. He has scored 87 runs across six T20Is in 2022. With Stokes not having played a T20I since March 2021, he will also need to answer questions over his form but looks set to bat at No.4 in Australia. Thus, a batting line-up of Buttler, one of Salt or Hales, Malan, Stokes, Brook and Livingstone has solidified as England’s first choice. Stokes’ return, and Livingstone’s part-time spin, allows England to increase their batting depth, with one of Moeen Ali or Sam Curran at No.7.
England’s bowling attack also took on a more defined shape in Pakistan. Mark Wood showed his elbow injury had had no impact on his bowling speeds, serving up blistering pace to the Pakistan batters. Chris Woakes also pulled through on his return from injury and managed to pick up four wickets in the matches he played. Whilst England are handling both carefully, it will be pleasing for Mott to have two of their premier pacers set to play a role in the World Cup.
Chris Jordan is the only bowler who will join up with the squad in Australia, a finger injury keeping him out of the Pakistan series. If he can return to full fitness he will provide value to England at the death of the innings and should fit straight back into the XI.
If Jordan is available, he and Wood are England’s sure starters, with the only other remaining spot in the pace department to be filled by one of David Willey, Curran, Reece Topley, or Woakes, with each offering their own pros and cons. They all looked in encouraging form in Pakistan but on hard surfaces in Australia, Topley’s height and left-arm angle may give him the selection advantage over the rest. Adil Rashid’s form may be of some concern, the leggie averaging 44.80 with the ball in Pakistan, but he remains a certainty in the XI as the only specialist spinner in the squad.
Overall, England were able to solidify the structure of their World Cup XI in Pakistan and their list of questions going into the series against Australia is considerably shorter than it was two weeks ago. But who opens with Buttler, the exact makeup of their seam attack, and whether certain key players can regain form and fitness means their is still some work to do before the T20 World Cup starts.