For the second Sunday in a row an ODI series decider awaits England’s white-ball team, set up by their bowlers – Reece Topley, followed by the spinball wizardry of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali – after their batters continued a summer-long struggle.
Perhaps this is being a touch harsh about their efforts with the bat on Friday, given the nature of their 118-run win over South Africa at Old Trafford. Cut to 29 overs a side due to rain, it left a format that was a bit Bob Cunis – neither one thing nor the other, as John Arlott once said of the New Zealand bowler – and thus a tricky balance to strike for the team up first.
They were hugely impressive in the field, it must be said, be it the union of lefties led by Topley, the spectacular run-out pulled off by a diving Jos Buttler that left the tourists slumping to an irretrievable six for four, or the ligature then applied by Rashid and Moeen; given the sogginess of the ball, sharing five wickets was some effort from the spin twins.
Still, England posting 201 all out in 28.1 overs was the fifth time in five ODIs they have been rolled this season (a seventh in eight when including Twenty20 cricket). Failing to bat out the overs may not be viewed as the crime it once was but the dominance of old has been absent since Eoin Morgan was beamed up to the Sky commentary box, with Joe Root’s 86 in Durham their highest score.
This in part comes down to a batting order that had played scant 50-over cricket before this summer and is in a slight state of flux. Beyond the settled opening pair of Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy – the latter, it must be noted, is averaging 23 against full member sides since the 2019 World Cup – the middle order has played musical chairs. As well as no Morgan, it has been exacerbated this past week by Ben Stokes calling time on ODI cricket and Phil Salt, an opener, coming in at No 3.
The surfaces have also offered the white Kookaburra ball a fraction more nip than in previous years, the latest example coming when the medium-fast Dwaine Pretorious knocked over their top order for figures of four for 36.
Compare and contrast with England’s four Test victories this season, when the pitches were hard, the Dukes balls soft and a string of remarkable fourth-innings run chases followed.
Despite this, the orders from above have remained the same: a desire for outright aggression over pragmatism, something summed up by Liam Livingstone falling to Anrich Nortje on Friday after plundering three successive sixes and a four. Livingstone, still dealing in cameos in his one-day international career, said he probably should have pulled out of the shot, although it did not sound as if he truly meant it.
The schedule has also been unforgiving and does not get easier, with the turnaround from a 9pm finish in Manchester to an 11am start at Headingley on Sunday just 38 hours. It will also be interesting to see whether the needle witnessed on Friday has eased after Heinrich Klaasen, seeing his side’s run chase in ruins and with rain around, brought out the stalling tactics of an old pro and wound up Buttler.
Buttler’s visible frustration at his opponent and the umpires felt like a shift from the days of Morgan but this is probably no bad thing.
The captaincy has come sooner than the 31-year-old or his head coach, Matthew Mott, expected and differs hugely from being a stand-in. But to ape Morgan’s permanently ice-cool demeanour would be inauthentic, something the retired man himself has been keen to stress.
“Everyone thinks he’s calm and composed the whole time,” Morgan told Sky. “But actually, when there’s a fight on, Jos really gets up for it. We see it in football [warm-ups] in the morning – if there’s a dirty tackle, he turns and there is a bit of red mist. He’s not going to lose that, he’s got to be the best version of himself as skipper.”
One player unashamedly hoping to emulate a predecessor is Sam Curran, who spoke openly about the void left by Stokes after the win. “I almost want to try to copy him. I’ve always tried to follow the way he trains and the way he plays,” said the Surrey man. An 18-ball 35 with the bat, followed by the removal of the dangerous David Miller, made for a promising start to this particular mission.
Curran may have been wondering whether England’s deployment of three left-armers – himself, Topley and David Willey – was a one-off but a toe injury to Brydon Carse now points to an unchanged side. South Africa, looking to secure their first ODI series win on these shores since 1998, will not want to panic either, despite their highest total in the UK (333 for five) being followed by their lowest (83 all out).
Hot on the heels of this is a three-match Twenty20 series starting in Bristol on Wednesday, while in the background the great and the good meet in Birmingham for the International Cricket Council’s AGM.
They will sign off on a schedule that tries to have it all ways, with a proposed calendar saturated by annual global tournaments, ever-expanding domestic T20 leagues and swaths of bilateral tours.
Many feel ODI cricket, sitting between Test cricket and Twenty20, has become a bit Bob Cunis itself but do not expect its extinction to be announced in the coming days.