By the time Alex Hales left the pitch at Trent Bridge a couple of weeks ago, he could have been forgiven for thinking he had made his point.
He had, after all, just made 147 from 92 balls. And, in doing so, he had helped his side to a second-successive world-record ODI score in completed games on this ground. In the previous one, in 2016, he had smashed 171 from 122 balls. He averages 88.20 in six ODIs at the ground with a strike-rate of 138.24. You might think his position was assured.
Who else could it be? Jonny Bairstow has made four centuries in his eight most recent ODI innings; Jason Roy has made two centuries (and an 82) in his four most recent ODI innings; Root averages a fraction under 50 in this format and is seen as essential should England encounter a tricky batting surface and Eoin Morgan is both the captain and the highest run-scorer in England’s ODI history. And Jos Buttler, well he’s Jos Buttler. He might well be on his way to establishing himself as the best limited-overs batsman England have ever had.
The management have decided they like the security of playing the extra bowler – with Stokes and Root you could argue they have a seventh bowler – so despite Hales’ record, despite him playing one of his most mature innings as recently as Friday (he made a classy, unbeaten 58 to see England to victory in Cardiff), despite this match being played on his home ground, he looks the most vulnerable. Even with Stokes, at this stage of his recovery from injury, unlikely to be required to bowl more than six or seven overs.
This strength in depth is, of course, an asset. It provides reinforcements should injury strike and ensures there can be no complacency in the camp.
But it also brings with it some potential issues. For with the standards required to retain a place in the side now so high, it might leave everyone in the squad peering over their shoulder. And once that starts, it can threaten both the stability of the side and the selflessness with which they have played of late.
Morgan’s recent record, for example, is comfortably the least impressive of the batsmen. But while it would be fairly typical of England’s previous World Cup campaigns to abandon a long-held plan in the run-up to a tournament, you would think that lessons have been learned and nobody is seriously suggesting one of the architects of England’s revival should be dropped. England could do without a situation where a couple of poor games results in a player’s position coming under scrutiny but, once you leave a man like Hales out, it seems inevitable.
Perhaps this is making a negative out of a positive. Certainly Root, who was omitted from England’s T20 side in Bristol on Sunday, suggested so when reflecting on that situation and it’s true that, right now, there are no obvious cracks in the settled, positive environment around this team.
To see the squad laughing and cheering together as Stokes did a more than passable Jordan Pickford impression and save three successive penalties in the pre-training football, was to see what gives every impression of being a settled, united squad. The next few months may require some careful management, though.
“Being left out is a great motivator to make sure you’re doing everything you can,” Root said. “It is always difficult being left out and you never like that as a player.
“But it demonstrates the competition we have for places. It’s part and parcel of having a really strong squad. And, ahead of a World Cup, that’s what you want. You want guys outside pushing as hard as possible and forcing those difficult decisions. It shows where we have come in the last three or four years in this format. It can’t be a bad thing.”
It is equally not a bad thing that England are likely to face an almighty test of their newly-acquired reputation in ODI cricket over the next week or so, too. The long-term aim remains the World Cup and the next few days will provide a pretty good gauge for both these sides of where they are and what they need to improve. There are no guarantees, of course, and readers in Pakistan and Australia may disagree, but whoever beats these sides next year is likely to be very close to winning the tournament.
The absence of Chris Woakes remains painful for England. It’s not just his bowling – though he is probably England’s best death bowler – but the security he provides with the bat at No. 8. David Willey, while dangerous when the ball swings, has a bit to prove once it does not. Tellingly, he has only once delivered 10 overs in an ODI in the last couple of years and, on that occasion, England lost against Scotland.
Equally, England’s spinners are likely to be tested more in this series than they were by a spinaphobic – no, you probably won’t find that word in a dictionary – Australia and the entire batting line-up is likely to be confronted by more skill and more variation. It looks, in short, like being a high-quality encounter between two sides on top of their games. There’s no World Cup on offer but we might well have a better idea of who is likely to lift it in a year’s time after the next week.