Ahead of England’s Twenty20 series against South Africa, Eoin Morgan is hoping to solve the conundrum of what his best XI and squad may look like come next year’s Twenty20 World Cup. But he does not anticipate any answers just yet.
Even an XI for the opener at Newlands on Friday, the first of three matches over five days, is to be a late call. The prospect of two matches on the same wicket may lead the groundsman in Cape Town to leave grass on. Or a change in the weather, which Morgan says could bring about a change in the balance of the side.
The cards are as close as ever to the white ball captain's chest as he works out how to play them. What he knows for certain is that he is holding aces, and lots of them.
England have never had the kind of strength and depth in limited overs cricket, certainly not in their batting. Range-hitting sessions has been kicked up a level in a serious way. “The last couple of days has been very exciting but also very dangerous,” says Morgan.
The real danger is not making the most of this crop. At the time of writing, there are eight T20is currently on the schedule before the World Cup in India, not including any warm-ups before the tournament or whatever extra fixtures the ECB are able to organise. Plenty of opportunity for cases and decisions to be made.
“There are probably seven or eight guys who are pretty strong candidates to be in our playing XI,” says Morgan when asked how many players were nailed-on. “But given the strength of the squad we have selected, the reserves that we have here and given it’s the first time in a long time we’ve had a full-strength available side for selection, makes it really exciting.
“Ben (Stokes) was missing in the summer but playing against Australia with the side that we did was very strong. Ben adds a huge amount to it as well. No is the answer - I don’t know my best XI.
“You look down the order of potential XIs we could put out: sometimes all 11 can hit sixes, sometimes the top 10. You look at the batting order and it is very, very exciting.”
Stokes is one issue to address, in the very best sense. He has played just nine of 36 possible T20is since the 2016 World T20 Final which England lost to West Indies, and has come a long way since that disastrous final over. Improvement in every facet has him as one of the more complete cricketers on the planet, as shown by his 40 average in the recent Indian Premier League which came at the top of the order.
A decision on that will dictate whether Jos Buttler remains as an opener - it looks like he will - while there are also queries over Moeen Ali’s spot. One assumes he will be a safe bet for India given the value in his off-spin and hitting lower down the order at the death. But longer-term ambition will play second-fiddle to short term results, especially in the case of Moeen and the contender for his spot, left-arm allrounder Sam Curran.
“We are playing what we think is our best eleven to beat South Africa here and now,” said Morgan. “I also think, looking ahead to the World Cup, that we will need the option of two spinners.
“But also, if we have the luxury of two all-rounders in the side in Ben and Sam, that’s huge. Coming off the back of the IPL, Sam has certainly grown in confidence, probably even more so with the bat than the ball. He was certainly thrown in in all sorts of circumstances and had all sorts of challenges but came out the other side glowing. Which is great and very difficult to do in a side that really didn’t compete at all. He’s grown a huge amount in confidence. But when it comes to selection, we will be selecting based on who we think is best to win this series.”
This is an approach slightly at odds with how they approached the 2019 World Cup, with its four year preparation and consistency of selection, no matter the opposition or, to an extent, the conditions. With less than a year to go, England’s aim to possess both limited-overs trophies in the same cycle will require cultivating a winning habit and a settled side in tandem, and quickly.
“Winning at the moment would be great but for us, given the luxury in players we have at our disposal, it’s more important that we get their roles right and they feel comfortable within that. If we manage to solve that problem, the results will look after itself. The process of going through what is best for our team and best for our players to try and beat the opposition is extremely important.”