It’s not just that Australia are currently lacking half a first-choice team due to injury and suspension, and it’s not just that India are currently rated No. 2 in the ICC’s ODI and IT20 rankings. There’s little doubt that, after a 6-0 start to the white-ball leg of England’s home summer, the true examination of their limited-overs progress is just about to begin.
After all, this India side contains at least two of the best batsmen in limited-overs history – certainly Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni qualify in that category – and a bowling attack that contains an enduring source of heartbreak for England teams: good-quality spin bowling – in particular wrist-spin.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the last time these teams met in this format. On that occasion we were treated to a batting collapse to rate with some of the most dramatic in England’s history (and the competition for that accolade is pretty stiff) when, confronted with the potent mix of a demanding target (203) and a good leg-spinner (in Yuzvendra Chahal), they lost eight wickets for eight runs on the way to a 75-run loss.
To make matters worse – for England, anyway – both these limited-overs series are set to be played in conditions that should encourage spin and negate any advantage England might have had from ‘home’ conditions. With the country in the middle of an unusually hot and dry spell – by English standards, anyway – the surfaces encountered in this series (and probably the Test series that follows) might be expected to assist spin more than normal. The distinctive smell of burning wood – there are two major moorland fires near Manchester – provides an even greater sense that this first match might as well be taking place in an Indian city.
“Generally, it is a different challenge when you play against subcontinent teams,” England’s captain, Eoin Morgan, said. “It normally exposes sides like ourselves, South Africa and Australia to spin and reverse swing: different challenges to that we are normally used to. But we are in the middle of our summer and we have played a lot of cricket. Hopefully we will be able to deal with it
“The weather normally has a big impact on the pitch that’s produced. The grounds we go to in the T20 series normally take a bit [of spin] as well.
“Like everything, if you play against a side with good players and you focus on one or two of them, say the spinners, it’s more than likely it’s the seamers who will actually get the wickets. It can have a completely different impact if you focus on two guys too much within a team. They are a strong side and have other components to their game. It’s going to be a difficult challenge.”
There are reasons for optimism from an England perspective. For a start, they are a better side than many of those that preceded them and they are, after overwhelming Australia home and away, playing joyful, confident cricket.
Perhaps more importantly, the sense of mystery that once accompanied them in any series against overseas sides – and India in particular – has been diluted by exposure to the IPL. Ten of this squad (including the injured Ben Stokes and Tom Curran) have IPL experience and one of them (Moeen Ali) played alongside Chahal for RCB.
“That has a big impact,” Morgan said. “When I was coming through to the international team, playing against somebody like a Chris Gayle for instance, who you’d built up as quite a significant player in the game, you felt a million miles away from that, whereas our guys are rubbing shoulders with the best, competing and doing quite well.
“I think our experience of playing in the IPL is of benefit to us. It exposes our players to the biggest competition in the world. We had nine players picked up in the auction, with 13 eventually going including replacement players, which is the most we’ve ever had. It’s great experience and exposure for our players, but it also shows where we are at as a team.”
Whatever happens over the next few weeks, England’s eyes will remain – in this format, at least – upon the next World T20 tournament in Australia in late 2020. Gone are the days of using the format to take a look at players with a view to the ODI side and gone are the days of resting players with a view to keeping them fresh for Test cricket. With a global event on the horizon – albeit distant at present – the format will take greater precedence.
That was a point confirmed by Morgan ahead of the series. As well as stating he would like to continue as captain to that World T20 tournament, he said England would continue to tinker with their line-up – and batting order, in particular – with a view to finding their optimum strategy over the next 12 months or so.
“I’d love to do it [the captaincy],” Morgan said. “2020 [and the World T20] is where all our plans are going in this format.
“You will see more experimentation [in this series]. I think we have to be open to what might be the best combination down the line. I don’t think here and now that making a solid decision and sticking with it for the next two years is productive or healthy. We have to be as adaptable as we can be, going forward with one eye on the World T20 in Australia. And we have also the Big Bash: some of our guys might go down there and absolutely tear it up. So you have to be open-minded.”
Two men who are clearly in with a chance of selection are Reece Topley and Matt Fisher. Both were considered for selection for this squad once it become clear that Tom Curran was not fully fit. Fisher, aged 20, has long been thought of as a promising player and made his Championship debut for Yorkshire aged just 17, while Topley has recently recovered from a stress fracture of the back and was overlooked for Hampshire’s team that won Saturday’s Royal London One-day Cup final.
Ultimately, the England management raised some eyebrows with the decision to select a batsman – Dawid Malan – to replace a bowler (Curran). But they reasoned that allowing Topley and Fisher to play for England Lions against India A may be more beneficial than calling them to Old Trafford with little realistic prospect of playing.