Tomorrow, there begins 7 matches – five ODIs and two T20s – against South Africa to finish off the tour. As is usually the case when these take place after the Test series, there’s a sense of it being a winding down of the trip, as though they were tacked on the end. Indeed, the Guardian’s preview of the series is entirely with reference to the Test team and what it might mean for that. Yet, in a month, the World T20 begins, and this series carries far more relevance to that than anything else, particularly for an England team that ought to be in with a shout of doing well in it.
The 50 over game may not be directly translatable, but there are enough similarities for it to be a decent pointer to how the team approaches the one format where England have ever won a global title. Jason Roy has picked up a back spasm on the eve of play, but assuming he is fit, then the batting line up offers quite some potency all the way down the order. Whether they come off against a South African team that will pose a stiff challenge is another matter, for while England performed well in the UAE, there’s no sense that it is a settled side.
The core of the team is clearly Stokes and Root in terms of the batting, with the captain Eoin Morgan providing the solidity to the middle order that is now so critical. Certainly there’s no doubt that shot making is this side’s strength, for of the probable side they bat right the way down to 9 or 10, every one of whom can put bat to ball to explosive effect.
Yet it’s equally true that there’s a brittleness about the line up, with limited experience and form which is essentially unknown. It makes calling the likely outcome of the series rather difficult, for while England’s approach has been excellent, it’s an open debate as to how much quality is there.
The T20 squad is announced soon, and the 50 over format will be deemed an audition for that. The notable absentee from the initial squad who could play is Stuart Broad, and while there is logic in managing his workload, it raises the question as to whether he is in their plans at all. He has been called up as a replacement for Liam Plunkett, but he’s not expected to play the first game at least.
Of course, as far as that tournament is concerned, the spectre of Kevin Pietersen looms large. The ECB will certainly be hoping that these matches go well, for a hammering will put pressure on them once again. And so there should be, Pietersen has been a star in the T20 format this winter, and there is simply no getting away from the reality that England would be a stronger side with him than without. If the ECB were clever, they would select him – and since the exclusion wasn’t on cricketing grounds, the reason it would be clever would also not be on cricketing grounds. For the Pietersen issue has festered for two years precisely because of the duplicity and ineptitude of the ECB. Bringing him back for the World T20, in a squad where there are no past issues to be managed, would strengthen the side in a cricketing sense yes, but would also allow a closing of the circle.
Pietersen is highly unlikely to play any more red ball cricket, but making use of his undoubtedly exceptional abilities in T20 would end much of the rancour at a stroke, and allow him to depart the stage with his head held high, and with the bitterness at least partly diffused. The problem is that the ECB are simply not that clever. And they almost certainly won’t do it.
And so it is this group of players in the 50 over matches, plus Sam Billings who will probably go into that competition. Young, unquestionably exciting, and with bags of potential. Yet with a major challenge ahead of them to win this series, against a very strong side.