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Match Analysis

Phil Salt attacks opener brief to produce timely return to form

Likely to be a World Cup back-up, his approach is nevertheless exactly what his side needs

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Phil Salt powered to a 19-ball fifty  •  AFP/Getty Images

Phil Salt powered to a 19-ball fifty  •  AFP/Getty Images

There is a fine line between selflessness and recklessness for attacking opening batters in T20 cricket. It is a line that Phil Salt treads every time he walks out to bat, chewing gum with his untucked shirt hanging loose.
When things are clicking, life is good. The new ball flies through the infield and into the rope and you are the obvious hero, putting the team above yourself as the gunslinger without an ego. When you are out of nick, you become a magnet for criticism: for some judges, there is no greater crime than getting out while playing an attacking shot, even in a game predicated on them.
Salt's tour to Pakistan started with a grim run of form: 59 runs in five innings, including scores of 8 and 3 in England's two most recent defeats to go 3-2 down in the series. In the circumstances, and chasing a middling total of 170, it would have been easy to put himself first, giving himself a few balls to find his rhythm - not least with a T20 World Cup looming.
But Salt is part of England's new generation of ultra-attacking batters who see things very different. "The way I play is aggressive and I want to win as many games as possible while I'm in an England shirt," he said. "It's very simple: we want to go out there, be on the front foot and put teams on the back foot."
The eye-watering cost of the presidential-style security that ensures international teams' safety in Pakistan means that the PCB have little choice but to take up every commercial opportunity that presents itself: just in front of the perimeter fences at Gaddafi Stadium there are two model petrol pumps, with jumbo-sized cans of motor oil next to them.
Salt may as well have wandered over to them at the interval, knocked two gallons back and slid the gearstick into fifth: he slashed the first ball of the chase away for four, out of short third's reach, then whipped the third through mid-on. He crashed his sixth through mid-off, then smeared his seventh over fine leg.
By the end of the fifth over, England had already posted their second-highest powerplay total ever and had effectively won the game. ESPNcricinfo's forecaster saw the game as something close to a coin toss at the interval, giving England a 53.6% chance of winning; at 74 for 1 off five overs, that figure had jumped to 90.9%.
He reached 50 off 19 balls, the third-fastest England T20I half-century. "We killed the game off straightaway," Moeen Ali said. It was T20 cricket stripped back to its simplest form. "They just attacked us," Shaun Tait, Pakistan's bowling coach, said. "Every ball, they tried to hit a boundary."
Pakistan have used Mohammad Nawaz in the powerplay throughout this series, not least because Salt has historically struggled against left-arm spin. He has looked to address that weakness by spending winters in Asia - including at the PSL with Lahore Qalandars - but rather than getting off strike, he has looked to attack Nawaz.
On Friday night, he scored 32 runs off the 15 balls he faced from the spinner, treating him with utter disdain as he cleared his front leg and swung for the hills. He was just as destructive against the seamers, with the wet ball skidding on under lights.
Salt has been a leg-side cowboy for most of his career, pulling off the hip and dragging balls through midwicket, but has started to open up the off side much more, cracking full balls over mid-off and lofting wide ones over extra cover. He is strong down the ground too: his straight six off Nawaz was the shot of the night.
He finished unbeaten on 88 off 41 balls, more than he had managed in seven PSL innings in Lahore earlier this year. He walked off with a strike rate of 214.63 despite have slowed down once any sense of jeopardy had been sucked out of the game and the finish line approached.
In all probability, Salt will start the T20 World Cup on the bench. Alex Hales has not entirely convinced on his return but was quick out of the blocks himself with 27 off 12 balls, showing the same selfless streak as his obvious rival to be Jos Buttler's opening partner. After making such a big call in bringing Hales back into the fold, it seems implausible that England's management will overlook his sublime record in Australia.
If so, Salt will be the ideal spare batter: in the early stages of his T20I career he has scored half-centuries from No. 1 and No. 6, he is a good outfielder and has proved himself as a back-up wicketkeeper on this tour. More than anything, he buys into England's philosophy: attack first, worry later.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98