England cling to hope that T20 history repeats itself
When England began the last World Twenty20, the planning looked as though it had been done on the back of a fag packet. They had two debutant openers, another bloke returning after three years and six players in all who had not been around two matches before.
A fortnight later they won the tournament racing away from the pack. They were easily the best team there and played vibrantly, imaginatively and fearlessly with that trio of Craig Kieswetter, Michael Lumb and Mike Yardy all instrumental. The squad survivors – and there are eight – would do well to remember those heady days of 2010 in the Caribbean which brought England their first and so far only triumph in a major limited-overs competition. Otherwise, there might already be cause for despair.
England leave for Sri Lanka tomorrow after playing a final T20 today in Birmingham against South Africa uncertain of their best team. They must be absolutely sure that they are travelling without their best player.
As a result of the way it went last time, there is still a realistic hope that things might swiftly change and that from this combination of men a formidable spirit and shape will emerge. It is not looking likely.
The way ahead without Kevin Pietersen, the player of the tournament in 2010, was always likely to be fraught and the distinctly uncongested T20 international fixture list means that they have hardly had a chance to come to terms with it. Pietersen dramatically announced his retirement from all limited-overs cricket at the end of May.
He has cast a cloud over all England's dealings since and, although he has renounced that decision, he remains in discussions and at loggerheads with his employers, the England and Wales Cricket Board. England have regularly uttered the usual mantra that his absence offers somebody else an opportunity – always true in sport – but everything about their defence of the title was geared to him being there.
It is a greater hindrance that Ravi Bopara has chosen this month to be in the worst form of his life. Bopara's significance to the team grew with Pietersen's exit and now on the eve of the competition he has been dropped because he is in such a poor state at the crease.
This leaves a gaping hole in the middle order. Presumably, England intend to fill it with Luke Wright, who batted at No 3 in the second, curtailed T20 against South Africa on Monday.
Wright has had a successful season opening the batting for Sussex in the domestic Twenty20, in which he made 312 runs at the impressive strike rate of 160. But however great the goodwill that Wright generates, it is impossible to see him bringing to the team at No 3 what Pietersen did.
England are still clinging desperately to the fond hope that their young brigade will come good in the nick of time. Alex Hales made 99 earlier in the summer, the highest T20 score for England; Jonny Bairstow has already revealed his credentials; Jos Buttler is finding it hard to make a mark of any kind so far in international cricket. The last match tonight in the NatWest Series, no more than a sequence of glorified warm-ups, may see matters change for the better. England need to reach Sri Lanka and hope that things will somehow come together in their two warm-ups.
Their first match in the tournament proper is against Afghanistan, easily winnable, all too losable for a side unsure of itself. If the bowling does not immediately come to terms with Sri Lankan pitches, England will be in huge trouble.
With all this going on, the selectors met yesterday to discuss the squad for the Test tour of India. Pietersen would have exercised them only if he had suddenly become available and he did not.
There was the added difficulty of finding a new opening batsman to replace the retired Andrew Strauss. By the time they had sat down, two of the candidates – Joe Root and Michael Carberry – were out in the final round of Championship matches. Apart from their obvious use as planning aid, the fag packets might also have been needed so their contents could calm nerves.
England (from): S C J Broad, (capt), J M Bairstow, R S Bopara, T T Bresnan, D R Briggs, J C Buttler, J W Dernbach, S T Finn, A D Hales, C Kieswetter (wkt), M J Lumb, E J G Morgan, S R Patel, G P Swann, L J Wright.
South Africa (from): A B de Villiers (capt/wkt), H M Amla, F Behardien, J Botha, JP Duminy, F du Plessis, J H Kallis, R E Levi, J A Morkel, M Morkel, J L Ontong, W D Parnell, R J Peterson, D W Steyn, L L Tsotsobe.
Umpires R Illingworth & R Bailey.
TV Sky Sports 1, 6-10pm. Highlights: Channel 5, 12-1am.
Weather Overcast with intermittent sun. Maximum temperature: 13C.
Odds: England Evens. S Africa 4-5.
South Africa lead three-match series 1-0 ahead of tonight's final game.
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