Striking The Balance: Can England Defend Their Title?

No sooner had the dust settled on England’s epic Test match in Wellington than their white ball side was embarking on the first of three One-Day internationals in Bangladesh. Welcome to modern cricket. There has never been a greater separation between formats in the international game. Specialist coaches and players gulping down bitesize tours that allow the space for more tours, international cricket’s carousel wheel never stops spinning. Yet, unbelievably, England now have a cavernous gap of six months before their next ODI, allowing for a period of reflection, with a World Cup rapidly swallowing up the rearview mirrors.

Scheduling grumbles aside, England won the series against Bangladesh 2-1, but the nature of their defeat in the final game would have set a few alarm bells ringing. England floundered chasing a relatively modest target, undone by the guiles of Shakib Al Hasan. Only Dawid Malan’s ice-cool composure saved them from a similar fate in the first match, the left-hander scoring his third hundred of a productive winter. However, Bangladesh is a tricky place to tour, and England’s achievements shouldn’t be overly diminished. There were plenty of positives, Jason Roy scoring his second century since his return to the team and Jofra Archer continuing his excellent return from injury.

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England’s one-day form has been patchy since Jos Buttler took over as captain, series victory in Bangladesh their first since beating the Netherlands last summer. While England’s test side has blossomed under the bosom of Bazball, their ODI side has somewhat faltered, losing to India last summer, being clubbed in Australia, and falling short in South Africa. England strutted into the 2019 World Cup as the cream of the crop. Morgan’s renaissance had peaked, and a settled side was embellished by the addition of the freshly qualified Jofra Archer. England’s red ball side has been liberated, granted the license to thrill and dancing with it. Conversely, England’s ODI side looks shorn of confidence, lacking the conviction of Morgan’s world beaters.

This is not a criticism of coach Matthew Mott or Jos Buttler, England may not be heading to India as favourites, but they’re not lurching their way to a slow death as they did in 2015. Mott has an abundance of talent at his disposal, and England’s strength in depth is enviable. Arguably, the embarrassment in riches has hampered them slightly, as they constantly tweak the side, trying new players and combinations, a situation accelerated by the retirement of Morgan and Ben Stokes. The relentless schedule hasn’t helped either (pour some salt on my shoulder), with Mott rightly resting players while the lures of franchise tournaments have also caused problems with availability. The lack of consistent selection has created some intriguing selection headaches ahead of the World Cup.

Jason Roy has excelled over the winter, scoring two centuries to banish the demons of last summer and place himself in pole position to partner Johnny Bairstow, who will almost certainly reclaim his place at the top of the order. Phil Salt has failed to capitalise on Bairstow’s injury, struggling to replicate the promise he showed against the Netherlands. Alex Hales is a potential dark horse after a triumphant return to the T20 side, with Mott telling him, “the door is still open”. Malan is a shoo-in at number three unless chosen to partner Bairstow. Unfairly maligned in the past for his scoring rate, Malan boasts an impressive average of 55, at a more than respectable strike rate of 93. England’s batting in the opening powerplay has waned in the last year, and fast starts will be crucial on India’s spin friendly pitches.

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Things get a little sticky in the middle order, which has suffered notable capitulations recently, especially in defeats in Chittagong and the first ODI against South Africa, where they floundered Malan and Roy’s strong platform. Joe Root is undoubtedly England’s number four; despite a relatively lean 2022 in ODI cricket, Buttler’s side has missed his calming presence this winter. Root’s ability to rotate the strike and manoeuvre the spinners through his audacious sweeps and dabs will be vital in India, providing a foil to the fireworks. Of course, Buttler’s a nailed-on selection, and he looked back to his best in South Africa. Buttler will likely bat at number five, a position he has occupied this winter. Any lower would be a significant waste of his talents. Mott’s main issue is what to do with Harry Brook.

The Yorkshireman has been pulverising bowling attacks in Test cricket, filling Bairstow’s boots with considerable ease. Brook’s ODI career is in its infancy, but he demonstrated his talents with a classy 80 in Bloemfontein. How do you exclude him? Brook’s potential inclusion has nothing to do with his ability but with how it affects the balance of the side. Hypothetically, if Brook were to bat at six, England would only have space for two all-rounders at number seven and eight. In Bangladesh, England operated primarily with three all-rounders, allowing them to play three spinners, something you would expect them to replicate in India.

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They played Will Jacks and Moeen Ali in the first two games, who batted at six and seven, respectively. Jacks is an electric talent, a fearsome striker and an excellent fielder, but while his off-spin is developing nicely, Root’s tweakers could do a similar job while strengthening the batting. Another option is Liam Livingstone, a prodigious hitter; his liquorice all-sorts spin is arguably better than both Root or Jacks, but he has failed to fully harness his abilities in the ODI arena. Livingstone’s injury, sustained in Pakistan, has left him on the sidelines for most of the winter, just as he was starting to establish himself in the side.

And what about Ben Stokes? England’s captain understandably retired from ODI action last summer, citing the unreasonable demands of the schedule. Mott expressed his desire for Stokes to return after England’s world T20 success, rhetoric supported by managing director Rob Key. Stokes has reportedly been given a deadline of “halfway through the summer” for a decision, and if he chose to return, you would imagine he would be an automatic selection. Considering Stokes’s trouble with his knee at the end of the Wellington Test, the comeback may be physically beyond him.

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The rise of Jacks and Livingstone has led to some scrutiny over Mooen Ali’s position. Ali’s role and position in England’s XI has often fluctuated, but he has struggled to capture the consistency that made him such a crucial aspect of England’s 2019 World Cup-winning side. His fifty against South Africa in Bloemfontein was his first ODI half-century since 2017. Admittedly, Ali’s role with the bat has largely been reduced to a finisher, and while his bowling average has gone up since 2019, his economy rate is impressive. Ali’s ability to provide some control to Adil Rashid’s attacking approach gives him an advantage over Jacks and Livingstone, while as Buttler’s vice-captain, he is an important leadership figure in the team.

Sam Curran and Chris Woakes will likely vie for a spot at number eight. Curran’s powerful hitting gives him an edge, and he demonstrated his ability with the ball at the death in last year’s World T20, winning player of the tournament. Woakes’s ability to take wickets with the new ball was critical to England’s success in 2019, but his ability to move the ball will be blunted in the sub-continent. David Willey represents another option after being unlucky to miss out in 2019. Behind him, Adil Rashid is an absolute certainty, with youngster Rehan Ahmed likely to act as his understudy.

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England have a battalion of specialist fast bowlers available. Archer and Mark Wood provide pace and firepower, but given their injury woes, the two will likely rotate in and out. Pace will be crucial in India, giving Lancashire’s Saqib Mahmood an edge, having made his return from a stress fracture in Bangladesh. Mahmood’s ability to reverse-swing the ball could prove similarly crucial. Behind him, the cupboards well stocked, Reece Topley may have endured a difficult winter but showcased his abilities against India last summer, recording England’s best-ever ODI figures. Olly Stone’s height and speed make him another option, perhaps filling the “Plunkett role” in the middle overs.

With England’s next ODI in September, chances to impress before the World Cup are thin on the ground. Instead, players will look to franchise tournaments to catch the eye, and with the IPL around the corner, the likes of Livingstone, Jacks, and Willey will be looking to further their claims. England may not be heading into this World Cup as favourites, but the abundance of talent at Mott’s disposal means they will undoubtedly be in the mix. In the meantime, Mott’s got several selection conundrums to keep him busy as he seeks to find the balance.

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