England have one more game to play before the start of the T20 World Cup and several questions still to be answered. The core problem Matthew Mott and Jos Buttler have to grapple with, however, is the one the coach and captain will have dreamed of when they picked their squad: which of these 15 players, all of them fit and the great majority also in good form, can possibly be left out? But also, what can possibly be gained from an eighth game against Pakistan in the space of a month?
Mott suggested on Friday that England’s final warm-up, to be played at the Gabba in Brisbane on Monday, will be approached simply as an opportunity to hone the fitness of those players who require a bit of game time and to give those who have not played much since arriving in Australia a taste of the action. He knows the team he would like to play against Afghanistan in England’s World Cup opener and this is not an occasion to play it.
That team will certainly change as the tournament progresses, depending on fitness, opponents and conditions. But as it stands the only players who would certainly not be in most observers’ first-choice XI are Phil Salt, narrowly pipped by Alex Hales for a place at the top of the order, and David Willey, more than anything a victim of Sam Curran’s outstanding recent bowling performances. The only player who seems to be playing significantly below his best is Adil Rashid, who remains all but undroppable.
“That’s the beauty of English cricket at the moment,” Mott said on Friday night after repeated rain showers rinsed away England’s chance of a series whitewash over Australia. “Throughout this series and in Pakistan we made a number of changes and never felt that we’d lessened our chance of winning the game.”
Since Mott took over in May, England have changed in one notable aspect and it should make them much stronger contenders to win this World Cup than the last. In the last five years of Eoin Morgan’s captaincy he never once batted first out of choice, a focus on chasing rather than defending totals that seemed desperately unwise once they were forced to bat first in crucial matches in the United Arab Emirates, most notably in their semi-final defeat to New Zealand.
England still prefer to chase, as most teams do, but Buttler does at least occasionally choose not to. England have had to defend totals eight times under his captaincy and have lost one and won six. They looked to have been on their way to another victory before rain intervened on Friday so there will be no fear when they face doing so again.
“I’ve always thought that as a team you can’t set up to be one or the other – a toss of a coin can go either way,” Mott said. “Teams who lump it one way, and then [the toss] doesn’t go their way, it makes it tough to win and psychologically they feel like they’re behind.
“From our batting group, if we bat first there’s just a mantra of trying to maximise every opportunity. It’s not like we’re holding back or leaving anything in the tank. That’s probably key to what we think the next month will be.”
There is one big tactical question for England, which is whether to pick a bat-heavy lineup, with only three specialist bowlers, or a bowler-heavy lineup with four. Given how little work a seventh batter does – since the start of the last World Cup England’s No 7 has faced on average 4.8 balls per game – there seems little point in picking an eighth. But equally the knowledge there is an abundance of batting depth frees those higher in the order to play without fear. A batter can make a telling contribution without even facing a ball.
Confidence is key to success. England struggled in the summer but a series win in Pakistan and another in Australia, when they lost every toss but dominated every game, has provided a perfectly timed boost to their belief.
“We seem to have got our mojo back,” Mott said. “We’re in a good spot at the moment. There’s a number of teams that are potential winners of this World Cup, but we’ve got as good a chance as anyone.”