England in West Indies 2016-17 March 2, 2017

England aim to test bench strength as Champions Trophy fine-tuning begins

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Switch Hit: Tom Curran flies in for Caribbean ODIs

While nobody will be calling West Indies "mediocre" this time - they have surely learned their lesson - there is no doubt that England go into this three-match ODI series as strong favourites.

That is only partially a reflection of England's limited-overs resurgence. It also reflects West Indies' decline.

The grim facts are these (those of a nervous disposition should look away now): West Indies have not won a bilateral ODI series since 2014. Since 2008, when they defeated Sri Lanka, they have only enjoyed one ODI bilateral series victory against what might have been, until recently, one of the big eight (in 2012, against New Zealand). The last time they played ODI cricket, they failed to qualify for the finals of a tri-series involving Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. They didn't qualify for the 2016 ICC Champions Trophy and, unless they improve their ranking by the end of this September (they need to be in the top eight; they are currently ranked ninth), they will not qualify for the 2019 World Cup. They're not in a dry spell; they're in a famine.

But England are not used to the tag of favourites. They have improved fairly steadily since their 2015 World Cup performance - or lack of performance - but only now are people starting to talk about them as genuine contenders for the Champions Trophy. For the first time in a while - including, perhaps, the trip to Bangladesh - they are expected to win an away ODI series. With eight more ODIs before the Champions Trophy (these three, two against Ireland and three against South Africa), the time to stop talking about potential and start delivering results is upon them.

They are not at full strength, though. Without several seamers (David Willey, Reece Topley, Mark Wood and now Jake Ball, whose sore knee did not react well to training on Wednesday) this series presents an opportunity for fringe players to push for inclusion in that Champions Trophy squad.

England did think about calling up a left-arm option when Ball suffered his injury. Morgan rated Sam Curran as "the next in line" but concluded that Tom's "greater experience" and "probably higher skill level" was more important than variety. Willey and Topley are both expected to be fit before the end of April.

Wood won't be far away, either. But Morgan admits England are "looking into" keeping him out of red-ball cricket until the Champions Trophy is completed. Like a good portion of this team - Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler and Morgan himself - it seems the first red-ball cricket Wood will play will actually be the pink-ball round of floodlit games in the County Championship at the end of June. England's Ashes preparations will, effectively, start then. Until that time, the Champions Trophy is the priority and the team management have decided that playing in the IPL will be better preparation than playing in the County Championship.

Jos Buttler and Sam Billings will get an early chance to cement their places in the batting line-up © Getty Images

"Exposing guys to tournaments like the IPL is absolute genius," Morgan said. "We want guys to get exposed to high-pressure situations in order to accelerate their learning, so that when it comes to big tournaments we can step up to the plate and produce our highest skill level."

In the meantime, several others have a chance to re-establish themselves. Steven Finn, who has not played an ODI since September 2015, is sure to play and Billings will be given another chance to establish himself at the top of the order, though Alex Hales could be back by the third ODI. Jonny Bairstow is putting increasing pressure on Billings but he is likely to remain on the outside for the first couple of games at least. Buttler had a quiet tour of India but, if he remains fit, he is certain to play in the Champions Trophy.

"We're spoiled for choice in the batting," Morgan said. "But the injuries have started testing our strength in our bowling.

"We've been a bit unlucky with injuries to the bowlers. We have a good crop of guys. We've always said we've 16 or 17 people who can play. We're stretching the limits of that at the moment, but our batting's certainly in the right space."

Chris Jordan was also described as "in the reckoning" for the bowling spot. "He's been brilliant for us in T20," Morgan said. "He can bowl at the start, in the middle and at the end. And he was talked about. But we felt that Tom was the right call."

Conditions might prove something of a leveller, too. There is a little more grass on the Antigua pitch than was anticipated, but it remains likely to be low, slow and, consequently, is unlikely to present the high-scoring opportunities England have enjoyed in England and India. As a result, there may be a need to curb England's all-out aggression just a touch.

"It certainly won't be as free-flowing as it has been," Morgan agreed. "But our principles as a side will remain the same. We want to put the opposition under pressure the whole time. The emphasis here will be getting two men in at the crease. That's very important because, the pitches we're anticipating playing on, you can lose wickets in clusters and having two men in and taking advantage of their position is going to be key. That doesn't mean to say we still can't score 350 or 300.

"I'd like to think we have the attributes to win the Champions Trophy. If we have a fully fit squad we have the attributes: the balance of the attack with a combination of good spin bowlers and a very strong batting line-up. But now it's a matter of getting results and producing our best."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. He will be covering England's tour of the Caribbean in association with Smile Group Travel, specialists in hosted supporters' packages.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • LeeJA on March 3, 2017, 20:30 GMT

    BRUVVETECCLES...you were saying about Morgan? Bairstow being picked for ODIs is an unnecessary distraction for me, he should stick to red ball cricket. Northeast or Malan would be smarter picks with long term in mind.

  • bruvvereccles94 on March 3, 2017, 15:03 GMT

    The omission of Bairstow is looking more and more ridiculous. On recent form he's a better batsman than Buttler, and nowadays a superior keeper too. But they could both play.

    Actually, the weak link is Morgan, but it's very difficult to drop the captain.

  • Stephena on March 3, 2017, 14:10 GMT

    What players are England missing ? This seems to be the best available players possible

  • Nutcutlet on March 3, 2017, 8:13 GMT

    One of the major reasons for the ongoing decline of West Indies cricket is the state of their pitches - low and slow - as George reports here. The whole triumphant history of the great WIndies sides of the last half-century has been founded on a formidable depth of fast bowlers and stroke-playing batsmen. The current state of the wickets in the Caribbean remains a disgrace - guaranteed to produce turgid cricket. For this sorry state of affairs there is one organisation that is entirely responsible: the WICB. Whilst they have been at war with their senior players, they have done nothing about those wickets - with the possible exception of Barbados that naturally has more pace in it anyway. I am surprised that the ICC hasn't called them to account on their negligence. As for the match in prospect, I do not expect it to make the cricketing world sit up. And it won't be the players' fault.

  • dezzydezdezer on March 3, 2017, 7:28 GMT

    @ShekarRamlal86. Those players are missing for reasons that the WICB have control over, so they shouldn't feel hard done by. England's absentees are out through injury.

  • GeoffreysMother on March 3, 2017, 5:03 GMT

    'Until that time, the Champions Trophy is the priority and the team management have decided that playing in the IPL will be better preparation than playing in the County Championship' and then of course they will point out that nobody goes and watches county cricket and justify moving it into a November and December season! The people responsible for cricketing decisions in the ECB consistently undermine the integrity of the domestic game.

  • ShekarRamlal86 on March 2, 2017, 23:22 GMT

    England again always talking big! Why bring up how many players England are missing? Should we also highlight the absense of Gayle, Lendl Simmons, Dwayne Smith, Keiron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo, Daren Bravo, Andre Russel, Dinesh Ramdin, Sunil Narine, Ravi Rampaul etc????

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