Sluggish UAE pitches could be the enemy in England's quest for World Cup double
The absence of Archer and Stokes has hurt Eoin Morgan's team in the build-up to the T20 World Cup
England had one hand on the trophy five years ago, until Carlos Brathwaite's 'remember the name' salvo against Ben Stokes. They have been upfront and bullish about their goal to hold both World Cups simultaneously ever since their win at Lord's in 2019 in the final of the 50-over tournament.
Their chances of unifying the belts have taken a significant hit in the build-up, due to the absences of the two Super Over heroes of that title: Jofra Archer, the IPL's MVP last season, misses out with an elbow injury, while Stokes continues his extended break from the game as he prioritises his mental health. He has started to hit balls again after further surgery on his left index finger, but will play no part in the World Cup.
But, still, they remain among the favourites, thanks to a stacked batting line-up and an imposing record in T20Is over the last three years. Few teams have prioritised this format as much as England since 2019 - Eoin Morgan was given his strongest squad in South Africa and India over the 2020-21 winter, while multi-format players were rested from parts of Test series. And their results have reflected that; they have never been better-placed to challenge for a T20 World Cup at this stage of their preparations.
England have won nine, drawn one and lost one of their last 11 bilateral T20I series, dating back to 2018. They won five out of six games against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in their home summer but their 3-2 defeat in India in March did expose some flaws, and the ECB's decision to pull out of their whistle-stop tour to Pakistan leaves the squad members who did not play in the second half of the IPL short of match time.
There are significant changes from the side that played in the 2016 final: Joe Root and Alex Hales have not been involved for two years, while Jos Buttler has transformed from an innovative finisher into a destructive opener. Dawid Malan has posted remarkable numbers in T20Is to rise to No. 1 in the ICC's batting rankings and will look to dispel the lingering doubts about his ability on slower pitches, while Liam Livingstone forced his way into the middle order as Stokes' replacement with a remarkable purple patch during the home summer. Morgan's form with the bat must be a concern but he remains their designated finisher, and Jonny Bairstow has looked at home in the middle order since shuffling down to No. 4 in South Africa last winter. Expect some flexibility in batting orders depending on match situations, with Moeen Ali - most likely to be carded at No. 7 if he is picked - a candidate to shift up into a pinch-hitting role against spin.
Adil Rashid is the only frontline spinner in the squad - Moeen and Livingstone offer further options - but the roles of the seamers are less clear. Tymal Mills returns to the squad after a four-and-a-half-year absence on the back of a fine season for Sussex and Southern Brave, with Morgan keen to address England's recent struggles at the death, but is not yet guaranteed a spot; Mark Wood is an option in the enforcer role, bowling high pace through the middle; Chris Jordan has underwhelmed of late but is a key lieutenant to Morgan and has vast experience at the death; while Chris Woakes and David Willey are attacking options with the new ball if England decide they need to hunt for early wickets. Finding role clarity early on in the group stage will be vital.
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The merits of using Buttler as an opener versus as a finisher have been a constant source of discussion around England's T20I side but his record at the top of the order leaves limited room for debate: in 22 innings as an opener, he has scored ten half-centuries, averaging 51.47 with a strike rate of 148.05, and is guaranteed to start the World Cup in that role alongside Jason Roy. With Morgan's future as captain beyond this tournament unclear at this stage, this could be a significant month in the career of his likely successor.
England's successful run in bilateral series has generally come on flat pitches and thanks to a deep batting line-up capable of chasing high scores. So how will they adapt if the surfaces in the UAE are as tired and slow as anticipated? Their players involved in the second half of the IPL generally struggled to adapt to batting conditions, and their series against India in Ahmedabad earlier this year highlighted potential shortcomings against spin and at the death, particularly on slower pitches. That said, the importance of fast starts with the bat became increasingly clear as the IPL wore on, and thanks to Roy and Buttler, England's scoring rate in the powerplay has been among the best in the world across the last three years.
Likely XI (line-up): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Jonny Bairstow, 5 Liam Livingstone, 6 Eoin Morgan (capt), 7 Moeen Ali/Chris Woakes, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Tymal Mills
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98