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Caribbean or bust: England have T20 World Cup title defence on their mind
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Caribbean or bust: England have T20 World Cup title defence on their mind

As Dukes balls whistle around the shires and white Kookaburras are carted to all parts in the Indian Premier League, England’s thoughts turn to the Caribbean and a T20 World Cup title defence that can ill-afford to go the way of its 50-over equivalent last year.

T20 is probably too capricious a format to dub it a case of silverware or bust but it is clear Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott need a strong campaign – semi-finals minimum, perhaps – after the grisly one-day international abdication in India. England stumbled out of the traps there, with six defeats in their first seven games. “I feel this actually should be the making of those two as a partnership,” said Rob Key, the team director, at the time, before adding: “If it isn’t, it isn’t, and you move on.”

Mott appears to be feeling the pinch, going by an interview given to the Times this past week. The Australian pointed to the T20 World Cup win in 2022, understandably, and the schedule that along with Key’s prioritisation of Test cricket means he “hardly sees” his best players between tournaments. “You do feel sometimes you have one hand tied behind your back,” he said.

In this context, it will be interesting to see whether Mott has everyone around for the four-match T20 series against Pakistan in late May. It serves as England’s only warm-up cricket before their World Cup group starts against Scotland in Barbados on 4 June, followed by games with Australia, Oman and Namibia. But it also clashes with the playoff phase of the IPL. Key is due to name a squad on Tuesday, along with a preliminary 15-man party for the World Cup.

the final deadline for changes on 25 May – the same day as England’s second T20 at Edgbaston – it equally makes sense to get everything in place early. Communication to the players will be important here: just ask Jason Roy, supposedly told he was on the plane to India a year ago only for Harry Brook to take his seat in business class.

Phil Salt celebrates his 50 for Kolkata Knight RidersView image in fullscreen

Ben Stokes ruling himself out to focus on Test cricket makes the batting picks appear straightforward. The openers Buttler and Phil Salt are in a rich form at the IPL, Will Jacks is the likely No 3 and Brook – assuming he is ready to hit the road again – is too talented to not be a certainty. Any questions over Jonny Bairstow at the end of an epic but relatively unsuccessful winter in India were dispelled on Friday when he monstered 108 from 48 balls to help Punjab Kings vaporise a record chase of 262 in Kolkata. It was some episode of Bluey, all right.

Whatever the configuration, with Bairstow having been No 4 previously, it looks a powerful top five, albeit exclusively right-handed. Assuming Dawid Malan remains on the outer – he believes he is – a lefty such as Ben Duckett could serve as back-up or a tactical deployment should slow pitches call for his sweeps. Thereafter come the all-rounders in Liam Livingstone, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran, all of whom are getting game time in the IPL. Livingstone is a curious one, the second half of his winter one of scant returns, but England seem to like him.

Bowling-wise, so much will be pinned on Jofra Archer’s possible return: fingers positively crossed into pretzels that his near two-year injury ordeal is over. It would certainly boost England’s death-bowling, for so long their achilles heel. Curran did a stellar job during the win in Australia 18 months ago – earning an MBE, no less – but there are concerns his left-arm medium has regressed.

The strength of the seam stable is not easy to discern overall. Mark Wood endured a tough winter but offers pace; Reece Topley has recently been dropped by Royal Challengers Bangalore but is an England mainstay when fit; Chris Woakes, though dependable, is yet to get off the bench in the IPL. Jamie Overton, an uncapped bolter who hits a long ball, is waiting to discover the severity of a back injury, while Gus Atkinson, Tymal Mills and George Garton are all possibles.

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It may also be that spin plays a greater role in the Caribbean (England do not travel to the USA, regardless of how far they go) and not least with plenty of daytime starts in hot sunshine for the television audience in India. Adil Rashid is clearly a lock, despite no cricket since February, and Jacks, Moeen and Livingstone provide Buttler with options. The chief decision in this department appears to be between a second leg-spinner in Rehan Ahmed or Tom Hartley, uncapped in T20 but, crucially, a slow left-armer.

Key has been a selector informed by what the hosts are doing and that Akeal Hosein, the West Indies left-armer, has risen to third in the T20i rankings may tip the balance in favour of Hartley. Hosein’s fellow Trinidadian Kieron Pollard may well have an input here, too, having been hired as a local consultant coach: one of two additions to the backroom staff along with Andrew Flintoff.

Flintoff was recently tipped by Key as a future England head coach, an endorsement that may not have escaped the incumbent. How near or far in the future this vacancy arises could depend on how this shot at redemption goes.

Source: theguardian.com