‘Contenders’ England must go all-in as ageing West Indian stalwarts look for one last hurrah

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Five long years ago in Kolkata, time stood still for England’s white-ball cricketers against West Indies. The final of the 2016 World T20 culminated in such an extraordinary expression of wrought, raw power, as Carlos Brathwaite seized his moment against Ben Stokes, that it might have been the undoing of a more callow opposition.
Instead, in many ways, that moment was the making of Eoin Morgan‘s England – a team that had been assembled from the dregs of an abject World Cup campaign in 2015, and who embarked on their Indian odyssey with the naïve optimism of a gang of gap-year backpackers.

“Embrace the naivety” was Morgan’s mantra on that 2016 trip, as he encouraged his players to make a virtue of their inexperience, and simply go with whatever flow seemed to fit the needs of the moment. And right up until that volley of sixes at Eden Gardens, their eyes-wide-shut approach had seemed on course to seal their second T20 crown in the space of six years, after a similarly improbable triumph in the Caribbean in 2010.

But instead, the brutality of their missed moment had other, longer-term effects. Stokes, in particular, chose to channel his guilt and frustration into a four-year quest to become the most potent player on the planet, and was able to distil so many of those Kolkata lessons into the clutch moments of the epic 2019 final.

That night was arguably the making of Jos Buttler too, who saw West Indies’ apparently obsessive focus on six-hitting for what it truly was – not simply a macho means of catch-up from a team that couldn’t be bothered to work the singles, but a sea-change in how T20 batting was to be measured in the coming years, a recognition that few targets are out of reach if you know that you can clear the ropes at will… and if your opponents know it too.

For it was the shuddering power in West Indies’ body-checks that delivered perhaps the most lasting lesson to Morgan’s men – not just in the final, but in their only other defeat of the campaign, their tournament opener in Mumbai, where Chris Gayle launched 11 sixes in a 47-ball century to make a mockery of an apparently stiff 183 target.

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Talking tactics - Should Dawid Malan start for England?

Talking tactics – Should Dawid Malan start for England?

They showcased the importance of projecting one’s dominance in such moments. West Indies played with the poise of favourites throughout the campaign, not least because they had been trained at tournaments such as the IPL to thrive in the clutch moments, and grow into their arenas, not shrink from them. England, at that stage of their white-ball revolution, had had limited exposure beyond the confines of the T20 Blast, a stage that was proving perfectly adept at crafting talented players, but offered little of the situational jeopardy that ultimately sealed the spoils.

And as a consequence, it was West Indies who became the first team to claim the trophy twice, following their first win in 2012, and who go into this delayed rematch as the defending champions – now as then, so long in the tooth you wonder if they can possibly still have it in them, yet so powerful from tip to toe that it rarely comes as a surprise when everything clicks once more.

West Indies played that 2016 campaign with an additional fuel to their fire – the righteous anger at being disparaged as mercenaries by their own cricket board, a slight that their captain, Daren Sammy, addressed in coruscating terms in his podium speech at the final, safe in the knowledge that he would never play again as a consequence.
There’s no such grit in the West Indies’ oyster this time – although Gayle is perhaps seeking something similar to rub up against, given his vitriolic response to Curtly Ambrose’s mild critique of his selection. Instead, they are more likely to have to rage against something rather more ubiquitous – the dying of the light that awaits us all.
Gayle himself is 42 and batting on borrowed time, even if he was proving his prowess in the UAE this time last year, by slamming 99 from 63 balls for Punjab Kings against Rajasthan Royals. Dwayne Bravo is 38, but he became a champion once again only last week, bowling four tight overs in Chennai Super Kings’ latest IPL triumph. Lendl Simmons is 36, Kieron Pollard 34 … Andre Russell is 33 with creaking knees and hamstrings. Time will catch up with them all one day, but they are not ready to surrender to its march just yet.
England are not without problems of their own. Stokes’ absence is galling, but Jofra Archer‘s is a crushing blow to a team that looked set to pin their campaign squarely on the most sought-after white-ball cricketer in the world. Sam Curran is another nuggetty campaigner who won’t be able to bring his IPL smarts to the party after sustaining a back injury, and without the wealth of all-round options that Morgan has been able to call upon across formats in recent years, they can expect tricky selection conundrums on a case-by-case basis.

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Talking tactics - How can West Indies best use Chris Gayle?

Talking tactics – How can West Indies best use Chris Gayle?

They have to contend, too, with the knowledge that this is probably not the golden ticket that the T20 World Cup might have seemed in its pre-pandemic itinerary. The tournament had been due to take place in Australia this time last year, a venue that would surely have been far more favourable to England’s hard-hitting line-up, and which might also have offered Morgan a chance to bow out on his own terms, rather than stretch himself through what has clearly been a trying era of bio-secure bubbles and legacy management.

And despite PaulCollingwood’s insistence that England would continue to attack the tournament as favourites, and embrace the same mentality that took hold throughout England’s march to the 2019 World Cup title, there was a hint of equivocation in Morgan’s own assessment, when he downgraded his team to “contenders”, while acknowledging that India have been installed as the bookmakers’ favourites.

The subtext is plain, not least in an extraordinarily loaded Group 1, which will also feature Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh and probably Sri Lanka. England’s confidence is not quite where they would like it to be for this tilt at twin World Cup titles. But given everything they have achieved in recent years, nor do they have any choice but to go in with their eyes wide open this time.

Form guide

England: WWLWW(last five completed matches, most recent first)
West Indies: LWLWW

In the spotlight

Who dares to tear their eyes away from the Universe Boss? Chris Gayle has been the single most significant batter of the T20 age, but his era could yet be wound up in this coming fortnight. Since the start of 2021, Gayle has made 227 runs in 16 T20Is, averaging 17.46 and at a strike rate of 117.61 – that is more than 20 points lower than his career mark. His solitary fifty in that time was a typically gleeful rampage – seven sixes and four fours in a 38-ball 67 against Australia – but those moments are becoming the exception rather than the norm. He pulled out of the IPL, two matches into its resumption, to stay fresh for this campaign. We’ll soon see if the rest can bring back his best.

Three years ago, David Willey was the luckless 16th man in England’s World Cup plans. Someone had to make way for the incoming Archer, and though he alone could have offered a left-arm angle to their seam attack, the management decided that Tom Curran’s prowess at the death was a more useful reserve option than Willey’s ability to attack the powerplay with swing and seam. He says he has grown as a person since that setback, and is better versed to attack each match as if it is his last. But against West Indies in particular, with their glut of left-handers, he could be a vital cog in England’s attack. Five years ago in Kolkata, Willey seemed to have sealed the title when he scalped 3 for 20 in his four overs, including Russell and Sammy in the space of three balls. It wasn’t to be then, but as one of a probable seven survivors from that England line-up, the lessons he accrued on that night could be invaluable.

Team news

England’s team balance is an ongoing concern, with West Indies’ prowess against spin potentially encouraging England to field a seam-heavy line-up that, in the absence of Stokes and Curran, may force sacrifices to be made to their batting. And for all that Morgan has volunteered to drop himself if his form doesn’t pick up, the shorter-term victim is more likely to be England’s No. 1-ranked T20I batter, Dawid Malan, whose form in the warm-ups (a run-a-ball 18 and 11 from 15) seemed to confirm that his game isn’t best suited to the UAE’s pitches. The alternative would be to play one of Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills, with the spin of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Liam Livingstone to fiddle through two bowling allocations between them.

England (probable): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Jonny Bairstow, 4 Moeen Ali, 5 Liam Livingstone, 6 Eoin Morgan (capt), 7 David Willey/Chris Woakes, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Tymal Mills.

Coming into the tournament, Roston Chase was intended to be the glue in West Indies’ middle-order, linking together the power-hitters in a role somewhat similar to that of Marlon Samuels, the main man in each of their two victorious finals. His form, however, hasn’t quite stacked up as intended – an unbeaten 54 from 58 on Wednesday left their chase against Afghanistan flat-footed – and there’s a chance that he may be sidelined for one or both of Simmons and Gayle.

West Indies 1 Evin Lewis, 2 Lendl Simmons, 3 Chris Gayle, 4 Nicholas Pooran (wk), 5 Shimron Hetmyer, 6 Kieron Pollard, 7 Andre Russell, 8 Dwayne Bravo, 9 Akeal Hosein/Hayden Walsh Jr, 10 Obed McCoy, 11 Oshane Thomas/Ravi Rampaul

Stats and trivia

  • England have never yet beaten West Indies in five attempts at a global T20 tournament. They lost in consecutive tournaments in 2009, 2010 and 2012 (despite recovering on that second occasion to lift the title) then twice in 2016, including the final.
  • Gayle and Bravo are two of only six players to have featured in all six T20 World Cups to date, dating back to the original event in South Africa in 2007. India’s Rohit Sharma, and the Bangladesh trio of Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah complete the set.
  • West Indies have played just two T20Is in Dubai, and lost them both, against Pakistan in 2016. England, by contrast, have won four and lost two at the stadium, also against Pakistan between 2010 and 2015.
  • Quotes

    “The experience we had in 2016 and the ride that we went on was unbelievable – thoroughly enjoyable. We’ve played some of our best-ever cricket in T20 World Cups. The guys are excited.”
    Eoin Morgan says his team are ready to rumble again

    “He played in that warm-up game a couple of days ago and it was just like a trial for him because he hasn’t played a cricket match in about three-four weeks, so there’s still some rust there for him, still need to be a bit confident in his mind. But I’m sure even yesterday and a couple of days before that, he’s been working tirelessly behind the scenes to be fit.”
    Kieron Pollard is hoping to have Andre Russell in the mix soon

    Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

     

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