From the moment England’s fixture against Ireland was confirmed following the latter’s qualification for the Super 12, it had banana skin written all over it.
Regardless of the actual result, however, and what it means for England’s chance of reaching the knock-out rounds, the selection dilemmas it has exposed have the potential to give the loss greater meaning than it warrants.
England have an atrocious record against European nations in World Cups and losing a match they should have won is like a right of passage for any England World Cup-winning side. They have questions to answer, most of which centre around the form, balance and roles of their batting lineup, but thinking too deeply about these problems at a turning point for England’s campaign in Australia risks adding to their worries.
There is an inevitability about the the deepening worry over the failure of opening partnership to fire as of yet. Neither Alex Hales nor Phil Salt particularly grabbed the chance to partner Jos Buttler with both hands in England’s pre-tournament series. Hales was picked largely off the back of his record in Australia that dates back several years, and his only Hales-like performance came against a second-string Australia bowling attack. The alarm bells are now growing ever louder following his continued scratchiness against Ireland and Afghanistan.
It would be a big decision for England to put Salt back in to replace Hales against Australia. One chance, one innings, must-win, and Salt’s performances didn’t make him an obvious choice above Hales just a couple of weeks ago.
The next topic on the agenda is Dawid Malan, whose innings against Ireland was the most glaringly at fault for England’s loss. His 37-ball 35 meant they England never ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern par score. Malan’s innings was made to look all the worse by Moeen Ali whacking England to within touching distance of their required score with seeming ease.
Malan has faced criticism pretty much since he first pulled on an England T20I shirt for batting too slowly or taking too long to warm up or both. It is the same kind of criticism levelled towards Kane Williamson, Steve Smith, and at times, the Indian and Pakistani top orders. Maybe the criticism should be less about the person but the relevance and necessity of the anchor in T20 batting overall.
At the same time, Malan has been one of England’s most stable batters in the format for the past few years, and it will be a big decision to drop him on the eve of a must-win game. If they wanted more explosions at the top of the order – not that Malan is incapable of providing them – they can add Salt, dropping one of him or Hales to three. They can similarly promote a lower or middle-order hitter to the spot, with Moeen having batted at the top of the order before and looking in the best form of anyone.
It seems unlikely, though, that such a drastic call would be made in the scenario England find themselves in. Promoting Moeen may also risk disrupting his form and jeopardising the tail-end of the innings.
If the England middle-order had done what they were supposed to do, i.e., push the run rate up, Malan’s innings would not look as bad. He would have done his job as the innings anchor while the others batted around him. However, that was not what happened and the multitude of failures against Ireland and Afghanistan have highlighted not only the issues with Malan at three but also how out of form the most of their batters look.
Harry Brook has been remarkably quiet since he burst onto the scene in Pakistan, his only decent score in Australia also coming against Pakistan. Seeing him hack away at the Ireland bowlers at the MCG may have raised some selectors’ eyebrows, but questioning Brook’s selection highlights the difficulty for England in making any big changes for the match against Australia. Whatever change they make will seem knee-jerk, off the back of only two match failures. Surely it is better to park the result against Ireland and move on? After all, England are notorious for winning World Cups the hard way, why should this one be any different?
It is a difficult position to be in. If England lose to Australia on Friday, Matthew Mott and Buttler will likely be blamed for either making sudden changes to the XI or not making enough changes. If they win, they will be praised for sticking with their selection or altering the balance.
The issues around Ben Stokes’s place in the side encapsulate this perfectly. Since his comeback, he has averaged just over ten with the bat and has looked more than rusty. His saving grace has been his utility with the ball, which he continued to show against Ireland. England may look to solve the problem his form at four poses by batting him lower down, promoting Moeen, but surely that would not be a magic wand. He is Ben Stokes though, and as we have been told time and time again, in a must-win game in a World Cup, he is the best man you can have in your side. Right?
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