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Analysis

England's imbalance comes back to bite them at the death

Lack of fourth seamer gives England no wriggle-room as New Zealand swing a thriller

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
10-Nov-2021
When scans on Sunday night confirmed that Jason Roy had torn his calf and was out for the rest of the tournament, England were left with a choice. Should they stick with the batting-heavy side that had won them four group games out of five in the T20 World Cup to date, or bring in an extra bowling option after their attack's vulnerabilities had become apparent during their games against Sri Lanka and South Africa in Sharjah?
They brought in Sam Billings, a specialist batter who spent 20 overs in the dug-out. Defending a total of 166 for 4, which Eoin Morgan described as "in and around a par score", their bowlers left New Zealand needing 57 off the last four overs, a feat that had never been achieved in men's T20 internationals; they won with an over to spare.
Was picking Billings the wrong call? It's complicated. "I think this is our best balance of a team," Morgan said in his post-match press conference, defending England's selection. "Given how we've played throughout the tournament and the method that we've used, at the moment, we have 24 overs of bowling on the field and it's worked extremely well throughout the course of the tournament."
Batting depth has been a key part of England's strategy in white-ball cricket for six years. The logic has been clear: the presence of capable lower-order batters in the side frees the top order up, allowing them to attack throughout an innings without the burden of a high value on their wicket. Adil Rashid has faced just 75 balls in a 68-match T20I career, but England's batters regularly cite his presence at No. 10 as evidence that they have licence to attack.
It is up for debate whether Billings' selection freed England up to attack on a pitch that Morgan said "didn't necessarily suit our batting" and featured only six sixes in the first 36 overs of the match. The two main alternatives - David Willey and Tom Curran - are both capable boundary-hitters at the death, and with Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan also unused with the bat, England did not maximise their batting resources.
But it was not for want of trying. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, England played 52 attacking shots in Abu Dhabi, the most they have played in their five innings batting first in T20Is this year by a distance: their next most was 37 in racking up 180 against Sri Lanka at the Ageas Bowl, followed by 35 in making 200 against Pakistan in Leeds.
Even Dawid Malan and Moeen Ali, the two batters who spent longest in the middle and were their two highest-scorers, struggled for timing at stages during their respective innings, due to the two-paced nature of the pitch. England's results in bilateral series have been excellent over the last three years but they would surely benefit in the long term from more practice batting first: Morgan has not opted to do so after winning a toss in T20Is since September 2016.
With the ball, the decision to back Moeen and Liam Livingstone - labelled "genuine allrounders" by Morgan on the eve of the tournament - as the fifth-bowler combination worked throughout the World Cup. Both conceded less than a run a ball while taking regular wickets, and both have benefitted from the elevation in their status: Carl Crowe, the spin consultant who has worked with Livingstone at Lancashire, says that labelling himself a frontline spinner rather than a part-timer has sparked his improvement, while Moeen explained that he has attacked more instead of looking to bowl "darts" in the powerplay.
The issue has been the knock-on effect that the lack of a fourth seamer has had on the rest of the bowling attack, heightened by the injury-enforced absence of their one world-class fast bowler, Jofra Archer. Nobody has taken more powerplay wickets than Woakes in this World Cup but in three games out of six, England have held one of his overs back for the final five. Seven of those 18 balls have been hit for six, and have cost 57 runs off the bat.
There is no guarantee that picking either Willey or Curran would have meant England defended their score: Willey has a strong track record with the new ball but has struggled at the death while Curran's non-selection for the initial squad - he was elevated from the reserves after his brother's injury - reflected his diminishing effectiveness over the last two years.
But crucially, picking the extra bowler could have made the rest of England's attack more effective. With additional overs available, England would never have ended up in a position where Rashid and Woakes were bowling the 18th and 19th overs while defending a score in the dew. Morgan insisted that he "wouldn't change anything" with regards to his decision-making and deployment of the bowlers he had at his disposal, but additional cover would surely have helped.
England's defeat was down to two superb innings, not the balance of their side. Their death bowlers struggled to control their lengths with a wet ball and were punished by Jimmy Neesham and Daryl Mitchell. They have grappled with injuries to key allrounders and will not face the same issues with their structure in Australia next winter. But once the dust settles on a dramatic finish to a tense semi-final, they may reflect that they leaned the wrong way.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98