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Can England really not pick Liam Livingstone in their first-choice T20I XI?

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Liam Livingstone’s 42-ball century against Pakistan on Friday night was a statement impossible to ignore, writes Ben Gardner.

There has been no shortage of staggering displays of England’s white-ball depth in recent times, but in a way, this was the starkest of them all. It wasn’t just that a player outside of England’s first-choice team, in just his sixth T20I, could play an innings so incendiary, free-wheeling and controlled all at once, as Liam Livingstone did so in the first T20I against Pakistan, it was that he could do so and still not have made himself undroppable. He might just have secured himself a spot in the T20 World Cup squad, but a place in the first XI? These days, that takes more than a mere 42-ball hundred, the fastest ever by an Englishman in any international format, and a new men’s record for the highest T20I score by a No.5 against a Full Member.

Certainly, it’s tough at first glance to see who England leave out, with the top six so nailed on (when Ben Stokes is available) that in one of Wisden.com’s pre-series pieces we restricted our writers to picking merely their preferred bowling attacks –  any debate surrounding the batting line-up seemed pointless. Thankfully, for England’s fans, Livingstone himself, and, yes, the journalists desperate for something to write about, Eoin Morgan finally decided to get funky, and in doing so, he’s given himself an almighty headache.

Not that he gave the slightest inclination of having done anything but enjoy the innings at the post-match presentation. “It was an incredible knock,” Morgan said. “Over the last six years as a group, our changing room has sat back and watched so many incredible knocks from Buttler, Roy, Ali. That knock today was as good as any of them.”

Let’s entertain the question then. If we expand our minds, who could sit out, even semi-feasibly? Not Jos Buttler or Jonny Bairstow, England’s two greatest-ever white-ball batsmen. Surely not Stokes either, despite his modest overall record. He balances the side, but also, he’s Ben Stokes, and while every player in the line-up comes with some sort of cache, entering a world tournament without him in the starting XI really would be unthinkable. That leaves four possibilities. The first is to slot Livingstone in at No.7, and rely on his part-time spin and Stokes’ seam to combine to make up England’s fifth bowler. It’s an uneasy compromise, and, given Livingstone would end up shunted down to where he will have only limited impact, probably an unwise one. Onto the top six, then.

Jason Roy’s stats are, like Stokes’, similarly uninspiring – an average of 24 and just five fifties from 46 innings. But, like Stokes’, they do little to tell the tale of his impact. Innings like his yesterday, a 13-ball 31 which laid the platform for Livingstone’s pyrotechnics, don’t bolster the average or stick out come an end-of-series shakedown. But they can also be the difference in a one-off game, and given England’s gameplan, an opener who goes hard from ball one, who makes the most of the first two, never mind the first six, is crucial.

To Dawid Malan then, the world No.1 T20I batsman, and also somehow the first in the firing line whenever questions of this nature pop up. There are debates to be had over whether a slow start at the wrong time could cost England, if he has the game to adapt to a sluggish end-of-tournament UAE wicket. But those are wrinkles England have been content to overlook so far, and the other side is that he will win games by himself.

And so to the captain himself, who is struggling for runs in this format. Morgan is familiar with a lean trot, and there is comfort to be found in how he has bounced back from poor stretches in the past. There is also mitigation to be found, mostly in his new role at Nos.5 and 6, selflessly shunting himself down to accommodate Bairstow’s spin-smashing skillset at No.4. However, Morgan has made clear his position on his position in the past.

“With the potential, with this World Cup or the next one, we need to put ourselves in the best position in order to be contenders,” he told Sky Sports back in 2018, ahead of the 2019 50-over World Cup. “If that means I’m not good enough to be in the team, both as a captain and a player… I’m a pretty honest guy. If I’m not supposed to be in the team, I’ll be the first one to say it. If it means making a tough decision, I’m more than capable of doing that.”

Morgan’s impact on English cricket is clear, and never more so than in the past week, when Phil Salt and the rest laid bare that he’s done far more than imbue the national side with a fearless approach; he’s reworked an entire culture. Even in his absence, he was lavished with praise. But that can also be used against him. So profound has the transformation been that he may no longer be required to oversee it.

That brings us back to Livingstone, who provided the perfect example of that Morgan-managed magic. There was pressure, with Pakistan having put up a huge total and England 48-3 inside the powerplay. Even though the knock was only 43 balls long, it contained multitudes. There was some fortune, with his first six parried over the ropes at deep third, but five balls and 23 runs later, it had been forgotten.

There was the smashing of spin, something Livingstone excels at, but also consolidation against it too, with three off four following Morgan’s dismissal as he geared up to go again. There was little regard for milestones or records too, with the nineties careened through in three balls. It’s true that the innings came on a beautiful pitch, with short boundaries to be targeted, but Livingstone has shown elsewhere this summer that he can summon grit and play the situation, with an unbeaten 29 against Sri Lanka rescuing England from 36-4 and sealing the Player of the Match award.

Livingstone has long been touted as one of the most exciting talents in England, a brutal ball-striker with the technique to make him a Test contender, and the cocksure swagger to bind it all together. He has experience in T20 leagues around the world, adds something with his bowling bag of tricks, and, at the age of 27, might just be entering his prime. The question may no longer be, how can England pick Liam Livingstone, but how can they not?

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