Match Analysis

England's white-ball culture change laid bare as fringe players prove international mettle

English sport's surreal week continues as circumstances force promotion of youth

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Where to next for this increasingly surreal week of sport in the UK? With football - at least, according to a majority of those surveyed - on its way home for the first time in more than half a century, cricket decamped to Wales for the start of England's bilateral one-day series with Pakistan. After a tepid first half of the white-ball summer against Sri Lanka, this contest held out the promise of greater intrigue - and that was before you factored in the hosts having to come up with an entire replacement squad due to the exigencies of Covid-19.
England's enforced "change of personnel", as Ben Stokes put it with more than an air of understatement at the toss, was not only a curiosity for the record books - five debutants and a grand total of 124 caps between the rest - but surely presented Pakistan with a chance to pinch some valuable World Cup Super League points off a weakened opponent. At worst, these ODIs were bound to have a greater competitive edge.
But Stokes, having won the toss in his first outing as limited-overs captain, duly did as Eoin Morgan would have done and stuck Pakistan in, then watched contentedly from mid-off as England's Other Guys set about giving a practical display of the country's much talked-about white-ball depth. His first act on the field was to call for a review, as Saqib Mahmood thumped his opening delivery into Imam-ul-Haq's pads; thereafter, aside from a solitary over's bowling, he did not have much else to do.
Fears that going up against the likes of Babar Azam, Fakhar Zaman and Shaheen Afridi with a bunch of Royal London irregulars (more than half of whom hadn't played a List A match since May 2019) would prove to be a mismatch were by turns both confounded and confirmed. Mahmood, the England attack leader by mien as much as the fact his four previous appearances where more than the rest combined, claimed two wickets with his first three balls and the outlines of another thrashing as emphatic as anything handed out to Sri Lanka were defined.
By way of example, Sri Lanka's Powerplay scores in their three attempts to set a competitive 50-over target were 47 for 3, 47 for 4 and 45 for 4. A sickly return of 46 for 4, three of the wickets falling to Mahmood, left Pakistan in similar distress.
In truth, despite the scratch nature of England's XI, by and large the players on show were either close to the squad in recent times - such as World Cup winner James Vince or No. 1-ranked T20I batter Dawid Malan - or among the pack of Lions pacing to and fro while waiting for a chance. Mahmood, whose 28 Royal London Cup wickets at 18.50 in 2019 (the last time the domestic 50-over competition was played) helped win him international recognition that winter, duly took his.
Having begun about as well as he possibly could, by removing Imam and Azam in the first over of the match, Mahmood backed the effort up by going round the wicket to pin Pakistan's sole debutant, Saud Shakeel, lbw. He was then brought back by Stokes mid-innings - another Morgan-esque move - in pursuit of a swift kill; his fourth wicket, finding lift and seam movement from round the wicket once again to graze Faheem Ashraf's outside edge, left Pakistan 101 for 7 and sinking.
There was some extra spice to his performance, which was duly applauded by the Pakistan contingent in the ground - more voluble throughout than their English (or Welsh) counterparts. Mahmood was born in Birmingham but is of Pakistani heritage (his mother was born there), and it was in the PSL earlier this year when his performances as an overseas seamer - a rarity in itself - signalled he should soon be back in England contention after apparently slipping down the pecking order.
There were maiden ODI wickets, too, for Lewis Gregory, Matt Parkinson and Craig Overton, followed by an unbeaten half-century from Malan and another on debut from Zak Crawley, as England shrugged off the absence of their established performers. Pakistan's implosion, which included a daft run-out after Zaman and Sohaib Maqsood had seemingly steadied the innings with a fifth-wicket stand worth 53, added to the potent sense of the bizarre in Cardiff.
So dominant were the understudies that it invited comparison (at least in the shorter formats) with Australia in their pomp. The 1994-95 quadrangular series, featuring England and Zimbabwe as the touring sides, famously saw Australia A qualify to play the final against the senior XI. Australia A could select the likes of Ricky Ponting, still a few weeks shy of his full debut, Matthew Hayden, Greg Blewett, Michael Bevan, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn. Numerous other players from that era, from Stuart Law to Martin Love, would find domestic excellence rewarded by only a handful of caps.
England are perhaps not quite there yet, however garlanded the likes of Phil Salt and Brydon Carse go on to become. Perhaps, given the prevailing mood of the nation, it is more apt to focus on the complete change of culture that Morgan, Stokes and the rest have overseen, and see a parallel in the way Gareth Southgate has fostered a revival in English footballing fortunes - doing away with old-fashioned notions, investing in talent and technical skill, promoting fearless youth.
At Wembley on Wednesday, the likes of Bukayo Saka (eight caps) and Kalvin Phillips (14) demonstrated a readiness for the highest level that would have been almost unthinkable a generation ago. With three World Cups (T20 and 50-over) in the schedule for England's cricketers over the next couple of years, if Mahmood, Parkinson and the rest can step up as confidently, it won't just be down to an inconvenient outbreak of Covid-19.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick