Eoin Morgan has encouraged England’s fringe T20 batsmen to play with freedom in their three-match series against Pakistan, starting on Friday in Manchester – with the No 1 ranking up for grabs over the next 12 days.
The series was originally part of preparations for October’s T20 World Cup in Australia, which was recently postponed because of the pandemic. Instead, the next tournament will be in India in autumn 2021.
And if England, currently ranked second, whitewash the Pakistanis, then win their series against Australia, they will lay down an early marker by going top of the ICC’s table.
With Ben Stokes in New Zealand to see his family, Jos Buttler rested and Jason Roy yesterday ruled out with a side injury, this is the moment for the likes of Dawid Malan, Tom Banton and Sam Billings to make an unanswerable case for inclusion – especially with Roy hopeful of returning for six white-ball matches against Australia starting on September 4.
‘The messaging from myself and the coach throughout the majority of the series we play is to feel as comfortable in an England shirt as you do in a county shirt,’ said Morgan.
‘Our job is to get the best out of the guys who are in that squad. In order to achieve that, they need to feel comfortable and free enough to take the risks that international T20 cricket demands. This is their chance to stake their claim to be in that final 15 for next year.’
The injury to Roy, who is understood to have withdrawn from his Indian Premier League gig with Delhi Capitals, will pave the way for Banton to open, as he did in his debut series in New Zealand in November.
And Malan will then get the chance at No 3 to remind the selectors why he is England’s highest-ranked T20 batsman, in sixth place. That’s one ahead of Morgan, who was openly critical of Malan’s failure to attempt a bye off the last ball of the innings in Napier – where Malan had just blazed 103 not out in 51 balls.
Malan later explained that he thought there was an over to go, but Morgan’s pointed remarks did little to discourage the suspicion that his former Middlesex team-mate – now at Yorkshire – needs to do more than others to stay in the mix. Six scores above 50 in 10 T20 innings for England, an average of 52 and a strike-rate of 153, ought to speak for themselves.
Not that Morgan hasn’t noticed. ‘Every time he is available, he has put himself forward as the next man in, simply by weight of runs and the rate at which he has scored them,’ said England’s captain.
Sam Billings, who made 132 runs for once out in the recent one-day series against Ireland, would then be favourite to oust Joe Denly in the middle order, alongside stand-in vice-captain Moeen Ali.
Meanwhile, a bowling attack missing Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes gives the likes of Saqib Mahmood, Tom Curran and David Willey, who also enjoyed success against the Irish, a chance to help England extend their winning sequence in T20 series – including one-off matches – to six.
But the circumstances come with a warning from Morgan, whose next ambition is to become the first captain to hold both the one-day and T20 World Cups at the same time.
‘I don’t think we can have a scenario where we play the majority of our games with a half-strength team, and then expect to go into a World Cup as contenders, when guys don’t know their roles or haven’t been familiarised with them,’ he said.
Their first task is to beat a strong Pakistan side who boast the format’s top-ranked batsman in captain Babar Azam, and left-arm spinner Imad Wasim, who at seventh in the bowling is higher than any Englishman (Adil Rashid is eighth).
For Babar, who began the Test series with a delightful 69 at Emirates Old Trafford, but managed only one more half-century after that, there is a sense of unfinished business.
‘I was disappointed that I didn’t do what I set out for in the Test series,’ he said. ‘There were too many expectations for me. But we are positive about the series and will not take England lightly.’