There is less than a year to go until England’s bid to unite the 50-over World Cup with its Twenty20 equivalent and the series against South Africa that begins next to Table Mountain on Friday could be an important step towards this second summit.
By his own admission Eoin Morgan does not yet know his best XI for the tournament beyond “seven or eight strong candidates” and there is little doubt that conditions in both Newlands and Paarl – the behind-closed-doors venues for the tour – will be different to those in India next October.
Nevertheless, given a rare chance to select from a full-strength squad the England captain hopes the three-match T20 leg – his team’s first away assignment since the pandemic began – sees individuals become accustomed to positions, placing the importance of this above the scoreline.
“Winning would be great,” said Morgan, whose side claimed a 2-1 series victory in the T20s here in February. “But for us, given the luxury in players we have, it’s more important that we get their roles right and they feel comfortable.”
The biggest plus for Morgan is the return of Ben Stokes, who missed the end of the summer to spend time with his ill father in New Zealand. With this comes the chance to play two all-rounders as a combined fifth bowler, thus pitting Moeen Ali and Sam Curran against each other for one spot.
Everything points towards the former making way despite captaining the team in their last T20 international. Though Morgan stressed the importance of a second spinner alongside Adil Rashid next year, Moeen’s form has been elusive of late and there seems little value in asking the younger Curran – due to fly home to rest mid-tour along with Stokes and Jofra Archer – to carry the drinks.
“Coming off the back of the Indian Premier League, Sam has certainly grown in confidence, probably even more so with the bat than the ball,” said Morgan. “He was certainly thrown into all sorts of circumstances and had all sorts of challenges but came out the other side glowing. Which is great and very difficult to do in a side [Chennai Super Kings] that really didn’t compete at all.”
Morgan described the recent net sessions as “dangerous” and the range-hitting on show yesterday made it easy to see why. There is plenty of power in a top order that has Jos Buttler and Jason Roy opening, the world’s top-ranked T20 batsman, Dawid Malan, at first drop, and Jonny Bairstow exploring a new role at No 4.
Bowling-wise it remains to be seen whether Archer’s pace is allied with that of Mark Wood, or if the latter makes way for Tom Curran. While much of the focus is on the batting strength – as was the case during the 50-over side’s development – England are beginning to nurture good depth with the ball too.
Like Sam Curran, Archer comes off a personal IPL campaign that sat in contrast to that of his team, Rajasthan Royals, having been named as the most valuable player overall. The trick now, said Morgan, is harnessing the 25-year-old’s current purple patch during what will be a rare T20 appearance for England.
Morgan said: “I don’t think we will have him that often in between now and the World Cup. One of our challenges is to get him into a headspace where he is enjoying his cricket and make the most of the opportunities while he is with us.”
Whoever sends down the first ball, it will be a relief for South Africa after an eight-month gap between fixtures that has been filled with acrimonious boardroom politics and, more recently, a public debate about the team’s decision not to take a knee for the Black Lives Matter message.
The final Proteas XI was hard to pin down 24 hours prior to the series opener, with the identities of the two players who have tested positive for Covid-19 since their bubble was established a fortnight ago not publicly shared and the captain, Quinton de Kock, giving little away in his media conference.
England (probable) Jason Roy, Jos Buttler (wkt), Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan (capt), Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Chris Jordan, Jofra Archer, Adil Rashid
South Africa (possible) Quinton de Kock (capt & wkt), Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis, Rassie van der Dussen, Heinrich Klassen, JJ Smuts, Andile Phehlukwayo, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Tabraiz Shamsi
One thing we do know is that a change of testers has been requested by South Africa after what Dr Shuaib Manjra, their chief medical officer, described as “overenthusiasm”. “They get the swab not only into your nose, but into your sinuses and into your brain as well, so it is an uncomfortable test,” he added.
Though perhaps not to this eye-watering extent, the expected presence of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje – two star fast bowlers fresh from excellent IPL campaigns of their own and believed to be in good health – means England could well face something similar on the field.