England’s transformation from primitive deadbeats to post-modern swashbucklers remains unfinished. Unfortunately they have barely three weeks before the World Twenty20 to complete it or face the prospect of failure in yet another major limited-overs tournament.
It has been a pleasure to watch the change in the side led in uncomplicated fashion by Eoin Morgan since their wretched demise in the 2015 World Cup. After that debacle it was plain that something had to be done and England did it, adapting a fearless, anything-goes approach to the game, and especially their batting, which was wholly, refreshingly different from almost anything produced by their predecessors.
As they have now shown in successive matches – one in the 50-over version, the other in the first of two Twenty20 internationals against South Africa on Friday – this unfettered approach brings with it the risk of failure. Either they must become accustomed to that on too regular a basis to be confident of success when it matters, or they need to modify their strategy.
The conundrum is not straightforward. A little more judiciousness in Cape Town on Friday might well have seen the tourists score the extra 20 or 25 runs that would have made the game safer. But they might well feel that they have not got where they are today by being judicious. Perhaps they harbour the understandable fear that by tempering the deliberately blazing method they will lose something vital.
As it was, their total of 134 was almost enough. South Africa had to score 15 runs off the final over to win and did it thanks to a nerveless innings from Chris Morris and some variable bowling by Reece Topley. He will benefit from being at the sharp end of that three-wicket defeat off the final ball.
But as Morgan pointed out, it was the batting what did it. He seems to be favouring the more controlled path, at least in the sense that England have to respond more maturely to the circumstances at hand.
“We let ourselves down with a little bit of lack of awareness,” he said. “It’s easy to play with the mode of batting on good wickets, and expecting that all the time. The hardest thing is to get your nut down and score 150-155 – which would have been par.” The converse of that, of course, is that sometimes the constant battering ram approach can come off . Had it done so on Friday, England might have scored 200.
Evidence of that nature was provided thousands of miles away in Christchurch. Brendon McCullum took one look at a sporting pitch when he came in at 32 for 3 and decided the only way to go was to counter attack. He rode his luck but was deservedly rewarded in his final international with the fastest Test century in history.
Thus England must look at their options. Despite the two recent setbacks and Morgan’s observations, they may think that the unimpeded, almost gung-ho approach will ultimately bring them more reward. Until the narrow reversal in Cape Town, do not forget that they had won six consecutive T20s.
They will play their final match before the World Twenty20 today in Johannesburg. The team that plays is likely to be the same one that turns out for the opening match in Mumbai, against West Indies on 16 March – probably with the important exception of Steve Finn, whose extra pace and bounce will add an edge to the attack.
An England win will not only finish the tour on a high note after the triumph in the Test series and the narrow loss in the one-day series, but will calm some anxieties before they embark for India. Doubts can start to creep in quickly and the last thing they need when they play their opening match against West Indies is to be confused about the way they should go about their work.
England will probably not win the World Twenty20, a tough proposition on the sub-continent at any time. But for once there is reason to suppose they travel with hope.
They seem to be more adequately fitted for the task than the women’s team, who also play their final match today before the World Twenty20.
Nothing less than victory to win the series will suffice for a team who appear to have reached a plateau. In a new professional age that is dangerous territory.
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