With England’s second warm up match finished, attention now turns towards their first game of the T20 World Cup against the West Indies this weekend. Solidly beating New Zealand in a relatively low-scoring game, one must be careful not to spend too much time picking apart the results of friendlies. However from the game, there is certainly one major talking point that I see as being pretty important. The need to go hard early.
Today, England had the player who best realised this goal. Jos Buttler top scored, and in spite of the slow pitch did it at a pretty fast rate. His 73 came off 51 balls (143 Strike Rate), and he employed many of the shots that we’ve come to both enjoy and expect. As others struggled to get going, Buttler notched an impressive 13 boundaries, comprising 11 fours and 2 sixes.
Indeed, this is what England’s World Cup hopes right now seem to be relying on. With the prodigious wicket taking ability of Jofra Archer unavailable, the weight falls squarely onto the shoulders of the top-order, Buttler in particular. With many others in poor form, Jos Buttler’s ability to score on tricky pitches might just set him apart from the rest. Indeed, if the World Cup is anything like the second leg of the IPL, it is this skill which will be decisive in winning matches.
In the second leg of the IPL, a clear pattern emerged. Score more runs in the Powerplay than your opponent, win the match. Now, this is not quite a novel concept in T20 cricket, but it is certainly an extremity of something that is usually just a rule of thumb. The best explanation for this comes down to the relatively slow nature of the pitches.
In essence, once the fielding restrictions are relaxed and the ball has been softened, you have to put quite a bit of hard graft in to clear the boundary rope. Bounce is low, so the batter has to find a way to either pierce a gap or put a lot of their own power into the ball. The Powerplay is the limited window where you can try and push the tempo, and score some boundaries.
Buttler today showed how this can be done on a somewhat slow pitch, you simply have to go for it when you can. Indeed, the relative lack of sixes from a player of his ability highlighted just how tricky it can be to score on pitches like these. Even when connecting well with the ball, the boundary rope was not necessarily cleared comfortably. It was a top quality player doing what the team needed him to do.
England’s problem comes with what happens if Buttler does not fire.
The scorecard from the England v New Zealand match read like a parody of everything you joke about the team being. Opposite the storming Buttler, came a first baller for Jason Roy, and 11 runs off 15 balls from Dawid Malan. Of the two Powerplay partners, it has to be said that Malan’s knock did more damage to England’s cause.
Often, there is an air of frustration when people discuss Jason Roy’s knack of early exits in white ball cricket. I think that it is probably his most valuable asset. The benefit of Roy is that he will rarely, if ever, prolong any suffering. By this I mean, he reduces his game to going one of two ways. He either goes big early, or goes home early. Either way, England are helped. They either get a rapid start, or an opener departing without wasting any time or balls.
That is the problem with Dawid Malan. Even in his purple patch, a Malan innings was not complete without it starting with roughly ten runs off ten balls. For a period, he kept finding a way to kick on and finish strongly. This is no longer happening.
Instead, England have a number 3 who is totally incompatible with the requirements of the Powerplay in the UAE. It is simply not feasible having a slow starter coming in when you have such a limited window of opportunity to score runs. The time has come for England to make the decision to drop Dawid Malan.
Such a notion should not be controversial. The man is in poor form, has consistently failed to score on similar pitches to the ones expected in the World Cup, and England have the perfect replacement readily available in Moeen Ali. For the Chennai Super Kings, Moeen Ali had a brilliant season. In at 3, he showcases the urgency that the match situation requires.
As well as having all the positive intent in the world, Moeen also brings two strategic advantages. One is the simple fact that he is a like for like replacement in terms of keeping a leftie in the top three. With two right-handed openers, the fall of a wicket brings a left-right partnership into play. This should allow England to both target a short boundary, and also be able to nullify any ‘spinning away’ style match ups. It is in respect to spin, that Moeen’s other advantage comes in.
Moeen Ali is one of the best players of spin that T20 cricket has ever seen. With teams playing in the UAE often looking to bowl an over or two of spin in the PP, Moeen is an absolute dynamite player to have at the top. It is this level of ability that could massively elevate England’s World Cup chances. A top four of Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, and Jonny Bairstow is absolutely optimal for the strategy required to win matches in the UAE.
If all of your top four can play with the intention and ability to push as hard as they can in the Powerplay, you are in a strong position. The problem with Malan right now is that he soaks up Powerplay deliveries then gets out in the middle overs, leaving everyone else the less than favourable job of trying to clear the ropes then. Much like Roy, Moeen would not create this problem. If he fails, that’s absolutely fine, in comes Jonny Bairstow for the rest of the Powerplay.
Whilst warm up matches are often seen as being for fitness purposes, England would be wise to use them to pull the trigger on a change that has been a long time coming. If they want a chance at winning the World Cup, they need to get their gameplan spot on. The answer is to promote Mo to 3, and create an absolute intent machine of a top order.