@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
England just completed a routine 3-0 T20I series win over Sri Lanka but didn’t learn all that much, with none of the games that close and Eoin Morgan’s most reliable players doing most of the work. Ben Gardner looks at six questions still facing England in T20I cricket.
Are England definitely sure of the things they think they are sure of?
Since they were forced to rest players against Pakistan and Australia at the end of last summer, England have focussed on consistency in selection. They fielded the same XI in all three games against South Africa, employed just 12 players in a five-match series in India, and while there were a few more changes against Sri Lanka, these were forced, with Chris Woakes rested for the second game to manage his increasing workload and Jos Buttler and Jason Roy injured. It gives the impression of a team who know their preferred XI (Roy, Buttler, Malan, Bairstow, Morgan, Stokes, Curran, Jordan, Archer, Rashid, Wood) and are content to have their best team play as often as possible, get into form and get to know each other, with fiddling and experimentation not needed.
However, speaking after the series win, Morgan gave a different impression. “If everybody was fit, I don’t think there are many [spots] nailed down – there’s probably half a dozen,” he said. “There’s a significant period of time [before the World Cup].” Among those six would certainly be Rashid, Archer and Buttler. You would assume Morgan is including himself, although we’ll come to him. Is Malan, the world’s No.1 ranked T20I batsman, a lock? What about Bairstow, vying with Buttler for the title of England’s greatest white-ball batsman? Surely Stokes, the best all-rounder in the world, gets in? And what about Chris Jordan, who has played 54 of England’s 55 T20Is since the start of 2016? If Morgan is to be believed, at least two of those aren’t dead certs.
Perhaps Morgan is being coy, dangling the carrot for those toiling in domestic cricket to impress him and bolt into the reckoning. Certainly, if England aren’t sure about their first-choice players, it’s hard to understand why there is so little rotation.
What happens if a batsman needs to be left out?
That leads onto the second question, which is what happens if one of that seemingly first-choice top six loses form or pulls a hamstring at an inopportune moment. T20 cricket is, more than any other form of the game, about specific roles and requirements, and so this is a tougher question than in the other formats. In Test cricket, you can simply bring in the next-best top- or middle-order batsman. In T20s, popular wisdom dictates that a player’s specific strengths and weaknesses against different bowling types, whether they score quickly from ball one or get set and accelerate, if a player is a hitter, anchor or finisher are all things which need to be taken into account when constructing a batting order.
England seem to see it more simply, with the forced changes in the Sri Lanka series giving a clue into how they will readjust on the fly if necessary. With Buttler injured, England simply promoted Bairstow, their ODI opener, to the top of the order. When Roy also pulled up lame, Malan was also pushed up, with Sam Billings and Moeen Ali filling in lower down. It’s an uncomplicated solution, and it’s not without merit: If there’s an injury, move everyone up one (with a few wrinkles) and bring in your next best bat lower down. But it also requires your best players, used to one role, to suddenly adjust to another, while expecting the least established to flourish in a position which requires taking risks from ball one.
What’s eating Eoin Morgan?
Between September 2019 and September 2020, Eoin Morgan was at the peak of his powers. He made four fifties in 10 innings, averaged 51 with a strike-rate of 184, and made his highest T20I score, a 41-ball 91 against New Zealand. Since then, the drop off has been stark. He is averaging just 11, scoring at a strike-rate of 128, and hasn’t passed 30.
This lean run coincides with Bairstow’s becoming ensconced at No.4, where his spin-striking abilities can come to the fore. All but one of Morgan’s innings in the first stretch came at No.4, while since then he has batted at second-drop just once, with all his other innings coming at Nos.5 and 6. Morgan was suggested by some as the answer to England’s finishing struggles, but on the available evidence, it’s not a role in which he excels.
The issue is, what do England do now? Bairstow averages 55 at No.4 since moving their permanently, with a strike-rate of 143.79, with his unbeaten 86 against South Africa one of England’s greatest knocks in the format, helping them chase 180 despite having been 34-3. Moving him again is an unappealing option. Morgan might just back himself to finally come good, selflessly taking the average-battering that can come from batting low down the order in the meantime. He might even perversely revel in being the player in the spotlight, knowing that it takes the glare of some of his charges.
Who is Adil Rashid’s back-up?
Adil Rashid was exceptional against Sri Lanka, going boundaryless through the first two games, claiming four key wickets, and even unveiling a new, rapid variation. Morgan rates him as the best in the world at his craft, and it’s hard to disagree. So important is he to England, and so unique a role does he fulfill, that it’s worth dwelling on what would happen if, say, his dodgy shoulder flares up again, even if touching wood and crossing fingers all the while.
Moeen Ali is regularly cited as England’s second spinner, but he’s also a second spinner. Both he and Rashid bowl slow, but that’s where the similarities end. Moeen is a container, focussing on accuracy, while Rashid is a wicket-taker, breaking games open when they are drifting away. The off-spinner has also barely been used by England recently, with Liam Livingstone preferred as a part-time option in this series, and Sam Curran filling in as an all-rounder at No.7.
The most obvious like-for-like is Matt Parkinson, only 24 but already a county titan, compiling the best season of his career while England honours continue to elude him. He has played just four times for his country, and while he occasionally pops up in squads, he was overlooked for both series against Sri Lanka.
The other option would be to rebalance the XI, pick a player to fulfil Rashid’s role, even if he’s not a spinner. England could, for example, replace Curran with Moeen in the all-rounder spot, and pick an out-an-out quick as the middle-overs partnership breaker.
Who are England’s go-to death bowlers?
How quickly times change. Not long ago, it was England’s powerplay bowling that was their main issue. Now, they have a surfeit of options, with Archer and Wood capable of bringing heat in the first six, Chris Woakes and David Willey recalled as new-white-ball specialists, and even Moeen and Rashid presenting themselves as options.
Now it’s their death bowling which is struggling. Archer is one option, though it’s arguably the phase in which he is least capable, and he is so good elsewhere the temptation will be to bowl him out. Jordan, the ever-present, has taken less than a wicket a game and conceded nearly 10 an over since the start of 2020.
There might just be space for a bolter, with Morgan citing Tymal Mills, by some metrics one of the world’s best in the role, but who has struggled with injury. “There are guys playing in the Hundred like Tymal Mills who could easily present a case,” he said. “He is an outstanding bowler and we’ve always been in communication with him, wanting him to get fit, play as much cricket as possible, and leave him alone until the World Cup comes. Playing for Sussex – given the journey that he’s been on – on a regular basis, is way better for him than trying to get fit for sporadic T20 series through the year. He’s a good example, along with a few other guys, that could present a really strong case throughout the Hundred.”
How do England balance a 15-man T20 World Cup squad?
Given how specific each role in a T20 side is, squad-building for an international tournament is a difficult skill. Teams are limited to 15 players, compared to the 24-strong units seen at franchise tournaments. Without wishing to state the obvious, that leaves space for just four extra players. For England at the 2015 World Cup, that was one spare batsman, one spin-bowling all-rounder, and two quicks.
Given England have preferred to pick just one frontline spinner in the XI, even in their five-match series in India, should they pick two back-up spinners in the T20 World Cup squad, using up half their extra spots? Is the temptation to pick players who can fulfill a variety of roles – someone like Liam Livingstone, who can be a top-order batsman, a finisher, and, at a push, a second spinner – worth it when in each specific department, there might be a stronger option?
Should fitness be taken into account? Jofra Archer and Mark Wood are both injury-prone but both first-choice if fit. Is it worth picking another out-and-out quick in case one needs a rest, even if they are unlikely to push for a place in the first XI? On such decisions can a hard-fought campaign be won and lost.