Callow England forced to build again
Stuart Broad may have captained before and all but one of his squad may have some T20 International experience but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that England were at the start of a new age as they prepared for Sunday's match against West Indies at Trent Bridge.
The England squad is not only without the recently "retired" Kevin Pietersen but also without their ODI top three: Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. James Anderson, too, cannot find a place in this side. While the bulk of the team that won the T20 series in the UAE remains - 10 of the 11 that won the final game may well play here - it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that England's schedule and their priorities are likely to count against them as a T20 side.
Indeed, such is the callow look to England that Stuart Broad, who will mark his 26th birthday on Sunday by captaining his country on his home ground, seemed to be playing down expectations ahead of the World T20 to be staged in Sri Lanka from September. "We are going to be a hugely inexperienced side going into sub-continent conditions," Broad said. "So we are not expecting the world."
While admitting that Pietersen's absence "didn't seem to effect the one-day team a huge amount" Broad accepted that Pietersen, man of the tournament when England won the World T20 in 2010 "is a world-class Twenty20 player so of course it is disappointing that he is not with us. But it's a great opportunity for someone else to put their hand up and stake a claim for that spot."
There is some irony in the annual hand-wringing and soul searching that invariably accompanies the start of the English domestic T20 season. While poor scheduling and dreadful weather have combined to dampen the early stages of this year's Friends Life t20, it is worth remembering that, only 10 years ago, county cricket was the birthplace of T20 and that England are not only currently rated as the No. 1 T20 side in the world, but they are also World T20 Champions. When you hear people insisting that England should learn from the IPL and India - a team ranked No. 7 in the T20 rankings - it tells you how easily style can mask substance in a world depressingly over-impressed by cheerleaders and fireworks.
That having been said, England's prioritisation of ODI cricket may have consequences. While it is understandable - having attained No. 1 status in Test and T20 cricket, they have set their focus upon a global ODI trophy - it may also come at a cost.
Not only has the five-match ODI series against Australia resulted in the Test series against South Africa being cut to just three games - a rare case of a cricketing encounter being undersold in modern times - but it has prevented England's core group of players participating in the domestic FLt20 competition. That, in turn, weakens a domestic event that was once strong enough to sow the seeds of England's World T20 victory. Anderson, for example, has played only one T20 match in the last two years. Cook has not played one in a year.
To compound the problem, England play very few international T20 fixtures. "It's been four months, then we have a one-off game, then it's another three months," Broad said. Those core players have little chance to force their way back into the T20 side.
They are also thwarted by a bulimic domestic schedule that starves its audience of T20 for the best part of 11 months before cramming, in several cases, three home matches in a week down its throats. By staging the whole competition in a mid-season window, it will always be at the mercy of the weather. The argument that it renders it easier to attract the most exciting overseas players can be negated by a quick glance at some of those involved this year. All are worthy cricketers; very few are box office.
The arguments for the introduction of a franchise system in the UK are equally fallacious. It presupposes that a country with a population of over 60 million and in which cricket is a niche sport can replicate the success of a country of well over a billion and where cricket is an obsession. It also overlooks the pesky fact that each of the IPL franchises is based in a conurbation of over six million people. There is only one city of that size in the UK.
Furthermore, it overlooks one of the great strengths of the county game: the presence of first-class teams right around the country. In an age when so little cricket is available on free-to-view television, that is an important factor. Besides, it seems most unlikely that the introduction of a franchise system would stop it raining or result in a less cluttered international schedule.
The truth is, given a fair chance, the domestic T20 program could still flourish. Were the T20 season scheduled on Friday evenings from late May to September, were England players available more often, were salary caps, young player incentives and other bureaucratic obstacles to be removed, then it would thrive once more. But, after years of tightening regulations, complicating the schedule and compromising the county game to the point of pawning its soul, there has been a sudden realisation from the ECB that they have diluted their own product.
The T20 at Trent Bridge also presents a final opportunity for West Indies to salvage some tangible reward from this tour. While there have been limited signs of progress, the fact is that West Indies have been beaten in all four of the international fixtures in which there has been meaningful play. Even the Black Knight of Monty Python fame - sans arms and legs - would struggle to "take the positives" from that.
On paper, they remain a side well-suited to the shorter formats. Many a wise pundit quietly fancies them for World T20 success. Broad rated Chris Gayle as "one of the best T20 batsmen in the world", while Sunil Narine, Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith and Kieron Pollard are among those with IPL pedigree. Judging by how few of them attended their optional practice session on Saturday afternoon, they must feel remarkably confident.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo