England seek opportunity in odd series
The end of a long and successful season is drawing nigh for England, with India's cricketers having finally made it home, hotly pursued by Leicestershire and Somerset, county cricket's representatives at the Champions League. In barely a fortnight, the England team will also be in India, preparing for their return series of five ODIs, but right at this moment, they are down at The Oval, dodging autumnal showers and preparing for a pair of Twenty20 fixtures that serve only as a reminder of previous administrative folly.
The Allen Stanford Memorial Series (as these matches are not officially known) has come about as a result of the collapse of the Stanford Super Series after a single ill-conceived incarnation in November 2008. The ECB had sold the rights to four years' worth of such events, a quadrangular tournament at home and a "20/20 for 20" cash bonanza in Antigua, and then promptly spent all the broadcasting cash they had received from Sky. The upshot has been this fudged bid to fulfil their contractual obligations, an unsatisfactory compromise involving two skeleton international teams, one of which will be led by England's sixth captain of the calendar year, Graeme Swann.
Nevertheless there is, from England's point of view, an undoubted value to the exercise that is about to take place. In exactly 12 months' time the squad will be in Sri Lanka launching the defence of their World Twenty20 crown, with India once again lined up as their principal opponent in the group stages. Given how infrequently the format is played at international level, any opportunity to practise competitively between now and then has to be welcomed by the reigning champions.
England have a further fixture against India in Kolkata looming on October 29, and then probably no more than four bilateral matches scheduled home and away ahead of the squad selection for the 2012 tournament. Therefore, this double-header could make or break the claims of more than just a handful of contenders, both those playing and those missing out.
Although the regular Twenty20 captain Stuart Broad is missing out through injury, the balance of England's squad is still geared towards the not-so-distant future. The telling decision not to hand the captaincy to the one-day leader, Alastair Cook, confirms the impression that England intend to make the best of a bad situation, and use these fixtures to gauge their Twenty20 development.
Alex Hales and Craig Kieswetter can be expected to open in both fixtures with a licence to clear the ropes, closely followed by a middle order that is likely to include three players - Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes - who have not yet celebrated their 22nd birthdays. Even in this new-look outfit, however, the decision to bring Surrey's Stuart Meaker into the squad as a net bowler provides a reminder that pressure for places is paramount.
"Any opportunity I can get to pull an England shirt on, I'm going to grab with both hands, regardless of what time of year it is," said Jade Dernbach, one of the players who, at this stage, would appear certain of taking part in the title defence. "With the World Twenty20 coming up next year, any games we can get will be vitally important. There are only five or six games before then, so these two games form quite an integral part of the plans and processes for that tournament."
Dernbach's maiden season of international cricket has been eventful, to say the least. He was called up to the World Cup squad in Sri Lanka back in March, having impressed the selectors on the England Lions tour of the Caribbean. Though he didn't play in what turned out to be England's final match of that competition, a ten-wicket elimination in the quarter-finals, he has since featured 10 of their 11 ODIs this summer, as well as two Twenty20s against Sri Lanka at Bristol and India at Old Trafford, where he was named Man of the Match following a matchwinning spell of 4 for 22.
"I set myself some goals at the start of the year, but did I know all of this was going to happen? Probably not," said Dernbach. "You take it as it comes and I'm overjoyed to have played so much cricket for England this summer."
A similar story applies for West Indies, although in their case, the new-look nature of their squad is more through necessity than choice. Many of their key players are absent either through contractual disputes, in the case of Chris Gayle, and or through the demands of the Champions League, in which Kieron Pollard is playing for Mumbai Indians, and in which Trinidad and Tobago have first dibs on several players who might otherwise be featuring here - including Darren Bravo, Ravi Rampaul and Adrian Barath.
Either way, Ottis Gibson, West Indies' coach, was seeking to put the matches in a positive light. "We don't have a lot of games leading up to the World Cup, so these two come along at a very good time for us," he said. "We've got a newish looking squad, but it gives our guys a good chance to see where they are in terms of international cricket. England are still the world champions don't forget, so we are taking these games very seriously in our build-up."
England start the series as favourites, partly because of their familiarity with the conditions, but also because of the deep well of confidence that the chosen players have inherited in the course of the summer. As Dernbach explained, the knowledge of what the team has achieved in all formats this summer couldn't help but rub off on newcomers to the squad - not least Bairstow, who produced a matchwinning 41 not out from 21 balls on debut in Cardiff last week.
"I think in one-day cricket you want to be able to go and express yourself and what's made you successful is what you want to continue to do," said Dernbach. "People will back you 100% in the decisions you make, and that's what happened for Jonny. For him to come in and look so at home was an outstanding achievement. That's a testament to the feeling we have got in the dressing room. We made him feel very welcome, he felt at home, and he was able to produce his best cricket which is what we want."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo