Liam Dawson lurks in the wings as England narrow World Cup options
Hampshire allrounder focussed on county form as shoot-out for squad place looms with Joe Denly
After a winter of match-winning performances with both bat and ball for his various T20 franchises, Liam Dawson could be forgiven for being confident about his World Cup chances.
A series of characteristically solid displays with his left-arm spin for Comilla Victorians preceded a handful of eye-catching knocks in the Pakistan Super League, including a match-winning fifty that must have reminded England's selectors of his ability as a batsman.
But despite admitting he'd love to play in the tournament, England's Mr. Dependable insists that his focus is on Hampshire for the time being.
Teams must submit their provisional 15-man World Cup squads by April 30, and while the narrative around the battle for positions has focused on their various seam options, Dawson looks set for a straight shoot-out with Joe Denly for the backup spot as a spin-bowling allrounder.
"I haven't really thought about [World Cup selection]" he insists. "It isn't something that's on my mind. I've got to concentrate on what I do for Hampshire.
"If a call does come then that's brilliant, but if not, then life goes on. We've got a lot of 50-over cricket here for Hampshire in a big season, which I'm really excited about - I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."
After he was named in the squad to tour Sri Lanka at the start of the winter, Dawson must have been tempted to clear his diary for the seven weeks from the end of May. He was picked alongside Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid for the first two ODIs of the series, but a side strain ruled him out for the rest of the tour, with Denly named as his replacement.
Come December, when the touring party was announced for the West Indies series, Dawson was fit but omitted, so that England could give Denly a closer look. Denly went unused in the ODI series, but pressed his case with a steady 30 and two wickets in the T20 series.
"It was frustrating to get injured in Sri Lanka," Dawson admits. "But it's part of the game. You've got to come back from it, and thankfully I had a decent winter after that."
Indeed, Dawson was not sat at home resting on his laurels. Instead, he was helping both franchises he represented to the finals of the Bangladesh Premier League and Pakistan Super League, and proved his worth with the bat in the latter in particular.
"I bowled pretty well [in Bangladesh]," he says. "I didn't get many runs, but there were some tough pitches in Dhaka. And I was very realistic - with the overseas players we had, I knew I wasn't going to play every game, but I was happy to play six [seven] games, and I'd like to think that I contributed in those.
"Pakistan was electric. The atmosphere was brilliant, and exciting to play in front of. I had a pretty solid tournament, a couple of match-winning performances, which is always what you want for the team, so I was happy with that."
Dawson's ability to change games with the bat has not had much airtime at international level to date. He hit a dogged 66 not out on Test debut in Chennai back in 2016, but has faced just 25 balls in limited-overs internationals.
But if England were unaware of his ability as a late-innings hitter, they surely know about it now. He was Hampshire's leading scorer in the Blast last year, albeit in a poor season, and showed an adaptability for Peshawar that helped his side out of some tight spots. That came after enlisting the services of a specialist T20 batting coach, Julian Wood, for a couple of sessions to improve his power-hitting: clearly, Dawson cares about self-improvement.
"With the opportunities I've had for England," he says, "I've played as a bowler, but that's fine - it's obviously good that you can get into the team with a certain string to your bow. It doesn't bother me. I know that I'm an allrounder - I've played a lot of one-day cricket in my career and I've done fairly well. It doesn't matter what other people might think."
Another factor that plays into Dawson's favour is that he will be playing cricket. Denly will miss the first two months of the English season to fulfil his IPL contract, but Kolkata Knight Riders' overseas players have powered them to two wins in their first two games, and there are no guarantees that Denly will get on the pitch.
Meanwhile, Dawson will be trying to help Hampshire retain their Royal London Cup title. He only played three games on their way to the trophy last summer, with Lions commitments breaking up the summer, but can expect to play a key role in their campaign this time around.
"We've got the same team [as last year]. A lot of young lads have come through here. A lot of people are excited about the competition, and hopefully the youngsters can help get us through to the knockout stages."
Of course, that head-to-head may not come to pass: England may throw a surprise and pick three back-up seamers, or another reserve batsman alongside Alex Hales.
But if Dawson did get the nod, he would let few people down. England have a habit of picking solid, unremarkable types as their left-arm spinner - think Stephen Parry, Michael Yardy, and Danny Briggs - but Dawson is a boundary-hitter too, and exceptional in the field. If Moeen Ali goes down injured, then put the cold sweats on hold: England have a ready-made replacement primed to go.