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Eoin Morgan relishes chance to test full-strength squad in quest for best XI

Captain focused on finding best roles for star players, rather than simply winning

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Eoin Morgan has welcomed the prospect of picking from a full complement of England T20I players for arguably the first time in more than a year, but admitted he is no closer to knowing what his best XI should be, given the extraordinary wealth of options at the squad's disposal.
Speaking on the eve of the first T20I in Cape Town, Morgan said he was anticipating an "extremely competitive, well-fought series", much like England's last encounter with South Africa in February, in which they won the T20Is 2-1 after sharing the spoils in the ODI leg.
But, while a string of victories between now and the next T20 World Cup - scheduled to take place in India (or the UAE) this time next year - would go a long way towards confirming England as one of the favourites for the title, Morgan said the most pressing challenge in the intervening months would be to identity England's "best six or seven batsmen", and fit them into roles that bring out their very best attributes.
The competition for places has been intense in the build-up to the series, with two hard-fought intra-squad matches followed by what Morgan admitted had been some "dangerous" net sessions, given the lay-out of the practice wickets at Newlands.
"The guys are trying to hit them into the stands pretty much every second ball," he explained, "and the nets have been pointed towards the changing room and the dug-out where a lot of our stuff is, so it's pretty dangerous. It's eyes open, absolutely all the time."
But short of paring down his options with a few well-directed range hits, Morgan admitted he was at a loss as to how best to juggle a squad that Jason Roy this week said possessed "frightening" amounts of talent.
"The honest answer is we don't know our best XI yet," Morgan said. "There are probably seven or eight guys who are pretty strong candidates to be in our playing XI, but the strength of the squad that we've selected, and the reserves that we have here, has made our full-strength side available for selection for the first time in a long time. That makes it very exciting.
"Winning at the moment would be great, but the process of going through what's best for our team and best for our players, to try and beat the opposition is extremely important," he added. "Given the luxury of players that we have at our disposal, it's more important that we get their roles right and they feel comfortable within that, because if we manage to solve that problem, the results will look after themselves."
Though England reached the final of the last World T20 in Kolkata in 2016, the format had been on the back-burner in the lead-up to the 2019 50-over World Cup, by which stage England had such a settled line-up that their ODI first XI more or less picked itself.
But now that the 20-over format has been installed as the white-ball team's priority, England face a race against time and availability to replicate that same level of role clarity that carried them to glory at Lord's last summer.
Their most recent T20I series, a 2-1 win over Australia in September, featured something close to England's best XI, although Ben Stokes was absent for personal reasons and Roy was injured.
But, notwithstanding the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine in the spring, Morgan said he envisaged all of England's contests taking place in bio-secure bubbles for the foreseeable future. Therefore the T20I team may not get many opportunities to field its best XI, with ten Tests against India and an Ashes tour next winter giving the multi-format players, in particular the likes of Stokes and Jofra Archer, a potentially debilitating workload.
Archer, in fact, has played just four T20Is in his England career to date, and missed the last series in South Africa after sustaining an elbow injury during the Tests. And while Morgan was relishing the prospect of unleashing the IPL's recently crowned MVP, he also warned that Archer would require particularly sympathetic handling in the coming months.
"He's one of the best in the world, so he's incredible to have around," Morgan said. "But I don't think we'll have him that often, between now and the World Cup. The challenge of him trying to commit to all the Tests and all of the T20s, I think that's too much. So we're just trying to get him into a headspace where he's enjoying his cricket while he's with us, and trying to make the most of the opportunity while he's with us."
One T20I series that Archer will be inked in for, fitness permitting, is the impending tour of India in the new year, given that could be a chance to trial England's first-choice XI in the same conditions that they will face at the World Cup. And by then, England may also have a better idea of how and where to fit Sam Curran into their line-up, given how much his stock as a white-ball cricketer rose during the recent IPL.
For the time being, Curran may find himself competing with Moeen Ali as an allrounder at No. 7. But, with the likely need for two spinners at the World Cup, and given Curran's powerful ball-striking, often in adversity for Chennai Super Kings at the IPL, Morgan admitted they were beginning to think of him as a second batting allrounder alongside Ben Stokes.
"Coming off the back of the IPL, Sam has certainly grown in confidence, probably even more so with the bat than the ball," Morgan said, after a tournament in which Curran racked up 186 runs from 141 balls, in addition to 13 wickets at 26.46. "He was thrown in in all sorts of circumstances, and had all sorts of challenges, but came out the other side glowing, which is great and very difficult to do in a side that really didn't compete at all over there.
"So he's grown a huge amount in confidence, but certainly when it comes to selection, we'll be looking to play what we think is our best XI to beat South Africa, here and now."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket