A short-format series tacked onto the end of a long tour can sometimes carry little significance, but England’s run of three Twenty20 Internationals with South Africa, starting today, is not one of them.
Having won the 50-over Cricket World Cup last year, England’s attention is now firmly fixed on repeating that feat at the 20-over version, which starts in Australia later this year.
While their opening game on 26 October in Perth may feel like a long time away, England’s players need to be thinking ahead.
Chris Silverwood’s side have just nine T20Is scheduled over the next eight months, so opportunities to impress are limited.
Few are already assured of a place in the 15-man T20 World Cup squad. Considered in this context, the next five days in South Africa suddenly look very important, especially as the Proteas have been drawn in England’s Super 12 group at the tournament.
Stick or twist
As with the all-conquering One-Day International side, England have a wealth of options when it comes to top-order batting – and that is where the most intriguing selection dilemma is.
The partnership between Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow has been the cornerstone of England’s success in the 50-over format but the combination is far from secure in T20Is.
Because of the previous focus on ODIs, England have largely used T20Is as a format in which to experiment and hand out chances to younger players.
Partly due to this, Roy has not even played a T20I since October 2018, with just 11 domestic T20s in total since the start of 2019.
In his absence Bairstow has been trialled alongside others, including Dawid Malan, Alex Hales, Ben Duckett, James Vince and Tom Banton in the past 18 months.
Malan makes his case
Bairstow’s 445 runs at an average of 55.42 and a strike-rate of 157 for Sunrisers Hyderabad in last year’s Indian Premier League have maintained his stock as a T20 opener.
Hales, Duckett and Vince are out of the picture at the moment, while Banton is on the fringes after making his international debut but is not in the current squad.
Malan has presented a strong case for inclusion, averaging 57.25 at a strike-rate of 156 across nine T20Is – a record bolstered by his record-breaking 103 from 51 balls in the fourth T20I against New Zealand in November.
He is certainly confident, too, writing in his Sky Sports column last week: “I don’t know what else I can do to break into the team for the T20 World Cup.”
Embarrassment of riches
As impressive as his record is, Malan might have to settle for a place elsewhere in the line-up, because there is another compelling option.
Jos Buttler bats down the order in Test and ODI cricket, but since shining as an opener for Rajasthan Royals in the 2018 IPL he hasn’t looked back, opening in 28 of his 29 T20 innings since while averaging 46.88 and striking at 153.
When you consider England have sent Joe Root home and also have Moeen Ali and Joe Denly in their 15-man squad for the South Africa series, there is an embarrassment of top-order batting riches.
Moeen will have to stick with a lower-order role, while Denly will surely have to be content with a place on the bench.
But with Buttler, Roy, Bairstow and Malan all in a full-strength squad, the next three T20Is might offer clues as to which direction England are plotting for the top of the order.
Whichever way they choose, it is bound to be explosive, judging by Silverwood’s pre-match comments.
“We’re going to keep being aggressive,” he said on Monday. “That’s how we’re going to break records and this team can break records.
“We’ve seen it time and time again. They play exciting cricket. I love watching it, they love playing it and it’s been a successful formula for them. It would be daft to change it.”