Test of loyalty looms as heat is turned up on England's World Cup contenders

Malan, Jordan among players with point to prove as Eoin Morgan thins out his options

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Dawid Malan is bowled while attempting a reverse sweep, India vs England, 4th T20I, Ahmedabad, March 18, 2021

Dawid Malan is bowled while attempting a reverse sweep  •  BCCI

Loyalty and faith are two of Eoin Morgan's most obvious qualities - right up until the point when he reasons that he no longer needs someone in his England team.
In the four years leading into the 2019 World Cup, David Willey was an ever-present member of England's squads, offering new-ball swing, left-arm variation and useful lower-order hitting. But when Jofra Archer became available, Willey was swiftly removed, and Sam Curran's emergence as a younger like-for-like alternative has seen him slide down the pecking order at alarming speed.
Then take Liam Plunkett. Morgan backed him as his middle-overs enforcer throughout the four-year cycle, sticking by him even through patches of lean form. But after Plunkett's vital three-wicket contribution in the World Cup final, he was discarded without ceremony. Morgan's ruthless streak has been a feature of his captaincy - and that's before even considering the case of Alex Hales.
So as England build towards the T20 World Cup, the handful of players who are yet to ink their names into his starting XI for the first game of the tournament will be desperate not to test his loyalty. Based on their performances in this series, eight players are locks in that side: Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Adil Rashid, Archer and Mark Wood - as well as Morgan himself. That leaves the four others who have appeared in this series - Sam and Tom Curran, Chris Jordan and Dawid Malan - feeling the heat.
Jordan has missed only one of England's last 52 T20Is, but has struggled in the past three games, conceding 114 runs in his 10.5 overs. He has been much less effective in his specialist role at the death of late: since the start of the series in South Africa in November 2020, he has leaked an eye-watering 13.22 runs per over for England when bowling in the final four overs of an innings.
In particular, Jordan has struggled to land his yorkers with anything like the precision he once did. Across his last seven T20Is, he has bowled eight yorkers at the death, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, conceding only 12 runs; but he has bowled 19 'full' balls and eight full tosses, which have cost 59 between them. While he has clearly been backed by Morgan, the pressure on his spot is greater than ever.
Tom Curran is in a similar boat. Trusted ahead of Wood in the South Africa series, Curran's 10 overs in that series cost 116 runs, and when Wood's heel injury gave him a chance in India, his two overs went for 26. The shelf life of slower-ball specialists is often short, and with Saqib Mahmood leading the charge for a spot in the squad during the Pakistan Super League before its postponement, Curran may be looking nervously over his shoulder.
For Malan, this has been a difficult series. His penchant for starting slowly before exploding when set has been scrutinised at length, and has clearly worked well for him over the last 18 months, as demonstrated by his remarkable T20I record. But his last three innings - 24 off 23 balls, 18 off 17 and 14 off 17 - have exposed the problems with that method, not least given the number of balls he has chewed up during the powerplay.
Malan will have plenty more opportunities to prove his worth, and may well benefit from spending the next two months preparing in Indian conditions regardless of whether or not he is a regular for Punjab Kings, but there is a nagging feeling that, for all his individual success, he may not be a perfect fit for England in a crucial spot.
Working as a pundit for Sky Sports, Dinesh Karthik suggested England should move Stokes up to No. 3, with Sam Billings replacing Malan in the middle order to break up their run of left-handers, while in Hales, Tom Banton, Liam Livingstone and Joe Root, England have several players who will put pressure on Malan's place over the next six months.
As for Sam Curran, his role in the side as a floating No. 7 has left him as something of a bit-part player, epitomised by his efforts in Thursday night's game. His solitary over cost 16 runs - though he did, controversially, account for Suryakumar Yadav - and with the bat, he was cleaned up by Hardik Pandya for 3 off 5 when England needed fireworks from their lower order.
Curran has performed creditably with the ball in this series, varying his pace well and using his skill with the new ball to bowl a wicket maiden to KL Rahul, and has conceded only 7.44 runs per over. But that he has bowled only nine overs across four games - and faced just 10 balls with bat in hand - reflects his limited involvement.
Another strong showing for Chennai Super Kings would serve as a reminder of his all-round skill, but as things stand, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sam Curran's contributions have been sporadic. If England opted to replace him, they might change their balance with a spin-bowling allrounder in Livingstone, Moeen Ali or Liam Dawson, or even open the door to Willey, whose performances in last summer's ODI series against Ireland suggested he has plenty more to offer; Moeen's own struggle to get back into this side demonstrates how cruel selection can be.
Trusting out-of-form players to come good has been a motif of Morgan's leadership since he took over as England's limited-overs captain, evidenced by Roy's return to run-scoring form in this series following a barren run against the ball spinning away from the bat in particular. Morgan's faith in Roy has been unwavering for the simple reason that he has stuck so closely to his ultra-attacking role; while some players would go into their shell during a lean spell, Roy has tried to swing his way back into form.
It sends a clear message to those who are battling for spots: if you put your own success ahead of England's, you won't last long. Once you are outside of what Morgan perceives to be his strongest XI, it is a formidable task to get back in it.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98