Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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Next month, more than 60 English men's cricketers will be in the UAE simultaneously. England's 15-man Test squad will go head-to-head with England's 15-man Lions squad in a three-day match, while around 30 Englishmen take part in the Abu Dhabi T10 and a handful of seamers continue their rehabilitation programmes.
In early 2023, England's player pool will be stretched even further. There are three full men's tours in the space of six weeks - three ODIs in South Africa at the end of January, two Tests in New Zealand in February, three ODIs and three T20Is in Bangladesh in early March - and a Lions tour to Sri Lanka from late January to late February, comprising two four-day 'Tests' and three 50-over games.
Meanwhile, at least 40 players will be involved in the inaugural season of one of the two new franchise T20 leagues: South Africa's SA20 and the UAE's ILT20. As it stands, there are 26 England-qualified players with ILT20 deals and 19 in the SA20; some will pull out due to injury or international commitments but others will sign as replacements.
"It is a real challenge," admits Mo Bobat, the ECB's performance director, whose role over the winter is to help perform a delicate juggling act. "I'd add to that dynamic that we have an Under-19 series in Australia too. Some of our best high-potential players will be involved in that, and that will be another strain on our talent pool."
Bobat started speaking to players in June about their winter plans, trying to help them "make well-informed decisions that connect to England needs", he says. "Gone are the days where you can just go: 'What's our Lions squad? Let's just announce it.' You can't do that anymore. You need to have really intimate and meaningful conversations with every player around what you think of them and their aspirations, and our needs as an England team across formats."
Players appearing in overseas leagues during the English winter is nothing new, but the emergence of the SA20 and ILT20 has accelerated the trend. "Some of them might choose to engage with Lions experiences instead of those more lucrative financial opportunities in white-ball cricket; others might have a bit of a mix in their programme, where they play a certain part in the Lions series, having already experienced some white-ball cricket," Bobat says.
"And some might decide that, given the red-ball emphasis of the Lions trip, they might want to focus on their white-ball opportunities and take on the challenge of playing in a franchise competition as an overseas player and the pressure and scrutiny that goes with that. I can see value in all of that, and I certainly won't judge players for their choices."
Some players opted against travelling to the UAE for the Lions camp before Christmas, instead opting to spend the start of the winter training at home. Dom Sibley is set to travel to Sri Lanka for the spring tour but will spend November at The Oval as Surrey, his new county, start their pre-season, while Matt Parkinson will work on his action with Carl Crowe at Lancashire.
Bobat insists, however, that players are still excited by the prospect of playing for the Lions. "I've not had any conversation with any player that makes me feel disheartened in that sense," he says. "They all want to play for England, across formats. If the Lions is a mechanism for them to develop their skills, be tested, and also be observed and assessed by us, they want to do that because they want to bang on the door."
The tour to Sri Lanka in the new year will be particularly important, with England due to play a five-Test series in India in early 2024. "It's an important time for us to get players out there and get them used to playing in subcontinent conditions," Bobat says. There may also be a fixture against Australia next summer before the Ashes, though that may be mothballed if they reach the World Test Championship final.
The ECB are still working through the Lions' forthcoming schedule but made clear in the recently published High Performance Review that there will be an increased red-ball focus, with the proliferation of short-form leagues around the world already providing players with opportunities to develop outside of the English summer.
"Many of them engage in franchise cricket overseas which has proven to be a real catalyst for their development," Bobat says. "A lot of the white-ball gap-bridging is already happening overseas, from opportunities in franchise cricket. Instead of competing with that, we need to look at it as a complementary fit.
"Instead of the Lions and international pathway putting on cricket that butts heads against that, we might as well provide something that doesn't exist. That is red-ball development experience in a best-vs-best environment."