It may shock you to learn that Friday will be the first time Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer line up together in an international Twenty20 match. Here we are, 11 months out from a World Cup, and two of cricket’s X-factors players have not turned out together for England in the format that rewards that characteristic the most.
In another sport, this may classify as an oversight. Even among a strong squad, those two represent England’s best hopes of becoming the first men’s side to hold both limited-overs trophies. And though they are two bankers, not picking them together means a lesser understanding of how the remaining nine stitch together. A key hallmark of progression under Eoin Morgan leading up to to 2019’s one-day triumph was consistency at the selection table. There has been anything ahead of 2021’s T20 showpiece.
The hunt for a second T20 trophy after 2010’s success has taken a different route. Since being blazed into the Kolkatta night sky by Carlos Brathwaite in 2016’s World T20 Final, Stokes has only turned out for England in nine of a possible 36 matches in the shortest form. Similarly, since Archer has been eligible for selection (March 2019), he has played just four of a possible 15, despite it being his best of three suits.
Their absences have been almost exclusively through managing injuries rather than because of them. So, while Friday’s first of three T20 matches against South Africa will be the first time selectors have the opportunity to pick a “full strength” side, it won’t be through luck. Merely the alignment of stars well within their control. For England, it is only now, less than a year out from the tournament, that T20 matters most as far as the white-ball is concerned.
It is a luxury, no doubt - one of bloated finances brought about by a superior standing in the international game. But it is also a nod to the separation of domestic and international T20, something which becomes clearer as national sides narrow their focus towards next year’s T20 World Cup. The starkest examples are those with higher-profile franchise tournaments
The Indian Premier League has offered no clarity for India’s batting line-up. West Indies’s superstars will take their spots irrespective of Caribbean Premier League form. In Australia, for all the Big Bash League’s ingenuity, they are likely to entrust the white ball to their successful Test bowling attack. Pakistan’s quest to find a batsman to share the run-scoring burden on Babar Azam’s shoulders has not been solved by the enduring success of the Pakistan Super League.
Even tactical advancements over the last four years are not quite applicable across codes. The emergence of pinch-hitters - specifically, bowlers with no previous batting record to speak of - is an initiative to uncover more value within strict financial frameworks. Match-ups, whereby a specific type of bowler is brought on to counter the strengths of a specific batsman, will be watered down given international squad selection is about picking your best 15 players regardless of what anyone else has and working from there.
This approach plays into England’s hands for they possess every type of player for every type of scenario in the Power Play, middle overs and the death - barring a left-arm wrist spinner. They also have a captain in Eoin Morgan who is very set in his ways when it comes to how he deploys his weapons. Even the debates around personnel - of Alex Hales being brought out of purgatory, Matt Parkinson being a spare leg spinner and David Willey’s rough luck - are ones around alternates rather than certain starters. To argue over players who probably won’t play is a reminder of the good problems enjoyed before last year's World Cup.
This state of being is in contrast to South Africa’s situation. A scribbled XI on paper would have the Proteas challenging for 2021’s trophy. But once you factor in meeting transformation targets and the sketchy availability of T20 behemoths like AB de Villiers and Imran Tahir, who will be 37 and 42 next year, theirs is a sense of uncertainty that has no end.
Indeed, an extension of England’s privilege is that they do not have to pick their best XI just yet. There is time for better problems to arise, like where they should play their most complete batsman (Jos Buttler) or if they need to find a spot for their spare bat that averages 48 in 16 international innings (Dawid Malan).
That could mean the wait for Archer and Stokes to take the field together in a T20i goes on a little longer. Then again, whatever conclusions to be made of their dovetailing can be drawn from their 10 Tests and 13 ODIs together in the last 18 months. Oh, and their 25 T20 appearances in tandem for the Rajasthan Royals over the last three years.
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