Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Can England win the Champions Trophy?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017
So that's the question: can England win the Champions Trophy? Well the simple answer to that is yes, they can, so I guess we go to the next question: will they? Now that one is harder to answer.

The series against South Africa served at first to raise expectations, and then to dampen them. They won a series against the top ranked team, starting with a strong opening victory, coming through at the death in match two, before then collapsing in a heap at Lord's. Even allowing for the way they inevitably dip in dead rubbers, England crumbling to 20/6 in the first five overs of the game made the pantheon of great collapses. Despite all that, they are among the favourites for a reason, having drastically improved in the format over the past couple of years and benefiting from home advantage. With a relatively settled side and a batting line up that - despite Monday's debacle - packs a punch, there's no reason why they shouldn't go all the way.

What England might lack is a winning pedigree. Less heralded England teams have come close before when the tournament has been at home, but both 2004 and 2013 saw them fail to seal the deal from positions of strength in the final. England's ODI cricket was defined by failure, by hapless performances at international tournaments, by missed moments along the way, by conservatism that held them back while other teams strode forward. This is their chance to show none of that matters any more, and to start that pedigree themselves. A chance to learn from the mistakes of before, and to make a clean break from them. And even more, with a home world cup in two years' time, it's a chance to lay down a marker for the future as well.

For once, England find themselves with a settled team, breaking a tradition of making changes on the eve of a tournament that has only served to hinder them in the past. This time round they know their strongest team, they know their top order, and they know the bowling attack they want when all are fit. What could stop them?

Of course, there are a couple of problems, because it could never go that smoothly. For one, collapsing to 20/6 on the eve of a tournament isn't a move to often instil confidence, even if it is more of a one-off than a consistent problem. An injury to Ben Stokes, limiting the amount he will bowl, isn't ideal either for the balance of the side. And for all the talk of having a settled team, this could be the one time when making a last minute change might be a good thing. Whilst Jason Roy has struggled for form at the top of the order, with four single figure scores in his last five innings, Jonny Bairstow has flourished and played the way that makes it difficult to leave him out. I will freely admit that I'm hopelessly biased, but it feels like a missed opportunity to me. Of course, Jason Roy could go out tomorrow, get a century, and close that door.

All in all, this surely has to be one of England's best chances yet to win a global ODI tournament. Whether they will or not is a different question, but we know they have the ability to do so. The same is true of several other teams though, with Australia and India two I have my eye on in particular. I feel this is the best prepared I've seen England going into a tournament, it's just a matter of delivering on the day and with the pressure of knock out matches. We'll see.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A good problem to have?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017
As England's international summer got underway with a series of two ODIs against Ireland, one of the most eye-catching performances came from Jonny Bairstow, whose innings of 72* from 44 balls helped to set up a victory of Lord's. It was an innings that could in essence be seen as a statement of intent, a potent reminder to the England selectors of his ability against the white ball from a man whose recent chances in the side have come more often down to injuries or withdrawals from others.

In a career spanning almost six years, Bairstow has played just the 25 ODI matches. After his dramatic entrance into the team in 2011 - a match-winning innings of 41* at the end of the English summer - like many young batsmen he struggled on a first trip to India. After the year ended, he had to get used to carrying the drinks - still making squads, but just adding one cap to his first six until after the 2015 World Cup. And with carrying the drinks comes the problem, a sense of limbo in a way - being part of the international set up but not in the team, not playing cricket, not getting the match practice needed to build form.

Over the past year, we've seen Bairstow finally reach the heights he is capable of at international level, in the test arena being one of England's best and most reliable batsmen. That level of form has stretched into the start of the summer too, his 72* against Ireland following 174 opening the batting for Yorkshire just days before. It's the sort of form that makes someone too good to leave out the side. Perhaps he hasn't made the most of all his chances in the ODI side - but it's a format where batsmen are always needing to take risks, and an average of 37.25 points the right way. And he's shown he can deliver the kind of performances that will win matches for his team.

The thing is though, that batting wise England have a lot of talent to fit into a simple eleven. It's hardly a bad problem to have, and a suggestion that would have been laughed at just a few years ago. The big names of Stokes and Buttler will come straight back into the side, with Woakes and Moeen Ali also set to slot in to the lower order. Bairstow and Billings have to fight to even get a look in, whilst Ben Duckett can't make it into England's tournament squad. Others on the county scene, like Lancashire's Liam Livingstone, are also rising fast. Somebody always has to miss out.

So what team could he fit into? The most obvious answer I can think of would be:

But still this team has its own issues. With all three of Bairstow, Buttler, and Stokes playing, the team would essentially have three number fives. Whichever order they went in, someone would likely be wasted - perhaps even more so with Buttler floating up the order when the situation allows. The bowling would also leave little room for error even with Root being able to chip in with the odd over, with Willey rarely one to complete his ten overs. With the strength in depth England have in their batting, it's hard to find room for another specialist there beyond the first four and Buttler.

And so, the case will be that Bairstow carries the drinks again. It feels a shame that one of England's best batsmen can be left out of the team, but at the same time a sign of their strength. They will know that if injury strikes they have a ready-made replacement who can slot straight in. And Bairstow will again be left to fight hard and be ready to offer selectors another reminder of this sort when the time comes.
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