As much as England’s white-ball evolution has been down to a looser leash and a “kumbaya” spirit to allow each player to be the best, most colourful versions of themselves, it is easy to forget just how much planning goes into that approach. Think of it as controlled chaos: like fireworks in a bucket… or sriracha infused mayonnaise.
Take, for example, how Jos Buttler, their most destructive batsman, is used in ODI cricket. Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan have a clear idea of the time and score to chuck him up the order. Sometimes that’s after a mammoth opening stand inside 20 overs. Other times, it’s a simple election to number five with a neat 15 overs to go. However, Buttler’s position as an opener in the Twenty20 format is not so much down to this way of thinking. For that, we can thank the IPL.
Since the end of the 2016 World T20, England have lost seven of the 11 matches played in this format: mostly, it has to be said, through rotation. But with that has come a rather stagnated approach. As written in these pages after their defeat in the first T20I at Old Trafford, Buttler’s ascension has meant a set of specialist top-order batsmen have had to shift down. Here in Cardiff, for example, Jonny Bairstow – the most destructive ODI opener going right now – came in at number six. But while the chaos has dulled, they have been able to rely on control.
This England side do not have the best record at Sophia Gardens. But in the 18 ODI and T20Is here, they knew enough about the dimensions of the ground to win the toss and opt to chase. They knew that with the short straight boundaries, it was unlikely that they would be able to bowl spin in tandem, so decided to drop the orthodox off-spinner in Moeen Ali.
Another aspect to consider was the position of the pitch on the square. Granted, it is always central for televised games, but this is the sort of ground where a couple to the left and you’re left with a more than manageable square boundary on one side. Not so on Friday, meaning both hits to the off and leg side boundaries required the cleanest strikes for full value.
As a result, Jake Ball was brought in for his T20I debut to give Morgan another six-foot-plus bowling option alongside Liam Plunkett. To manage the straight boundaries, both ran in hard and dug the ball in short. How short? Well, the number crunchers at CricViz had their average lengths measured at 14.2% shorter than usual, with an extra push of effort for the seamers resulting in a good deal more bounce than usual.
The vindication came early: a Power Play of 31 for three characterised by frustration for India’s top order. Rohit Sharma was desperate for a boundary and swiped loosely to top edge to Buttler behind the stumps. KL Rahul decided to show all three stumps to Plunkett, who decided to take the bails instead.
Eventually, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni realised that scampering between creases was the best way to go about business. Even so, Kohli felt the urge to steal a march, as “balls faced” crept up on “runs scored”, swatting furiously to back square leg but straight to a lurking Joe Root. Just 15 overs of the India innings and the tourists hopes of an insurmountable total were gone, lingering on 93 for four with just nine boundaries scored among them.
Yet, even with a grip on proceedings, England were not able to sit comfortably. MS Dhoni was able to pile on 22 runs in the final over – making it 33 off the final two – to allow India to finish on 148 for five. Furthermore, as the ask rocketed up, with 39 needed from the final four overs of England’s chase, only back-to-back sixes from Bairstow allowed England 16 from the 17th over to put the pressure back on the defenders.
Even then, they walked into the final over needing 12 to win. Only Alex Hales’ third six – only the second in the match over the shortest boundary at the River Taff End – released the pressure, before a four around the corner made it something of a formality.
This was very much the kind of result that beyond square this series, tells England little. What lessons they can learn is that this is not a format to be taken for granted, nor one that can be controlled. In fact, you’ll never guess what governs this format?
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