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England's selection headache: To go batting-heavy or bowling-heavy?

In the absence of allrounders Stokes and Curran, England find themselves with two different tactical visions to win T20s

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
When England have been at full strength in T20 internationals over the last five years, they have found it easy to balance their side. They have picked four frontline bowlers from No. 8-11, most of whom are capable with the bat, and then relied on Ben Stokes and one of Moeen Ali or Sam Curran to split four overs between them, sharing the workload of the 'fifth' bowler.
In this T20 World Cup, they do not have that option available to them. Stokes has only recently resumed low-level training after a prolonged break from the game, focusing on his mental health and recovering from a broken finger, while Curran's absence through injury is a significant blow: while his T20I career is still nascent, he is perhaps the closest thing England have to a genuine allrounder in the format as a six-hitter at the death and a versatile bowling option.
The result is that England will have to shape their side differently, opting for either a batting-heavy or bowling-heavy approach. Their choice heading into their first match of the tournament against the West Indies on Saturday - a repeat of the 2016 final - is not so much between like-for-like players, but for two different tactical visions as to how best to win 20-over games.
There is an idea in football that the majority of teams have to deal with a 'short blanket' when trying to find a balance between attacking and defending: "If you cover your head, you have your feet cold; but if you cover your feet, you have your head cold," Rafa Benitez, the former Liverpool manager, once explained. The same is true in T20 cricket, with No. 7s in particular: picking a batting allrounder leaves your attack vulnerable; picking a bowling allrounder can leave you short on batting depth.
For England, their balance rests on one question: can they trust the combination of Liam Livingstone and Moeen's spin as their 'fifth' bowler, alongside Adil Rashid and three seamers? That option, the batting-heavy one, would place immense faith in two bowlers who have effectively been used as part-timers in the last year - Livingstone has bowled 10 overs in six games since his recall earlier this year, while Moeen has bowled 13.5 in his 10 T20Is since the start of last summer.
Jofra Archer's absence through injury is relevant here too: a batting-heavy side would leave them relying on their seamers to bowl both in the powerplay and at the death, but most of their seamers in this squad have a focus on particular phases of the game rather than across an innings: Chris Woakes and David Willey are new-ball specialists, Mark Wood is best used as an enforcer through the middle, while Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Tom Curran are strongest at the death. Ideally, they would bowl in their strongest phase rather than cover gaps elsewhere.
The alternative - which seems the likely option at this stage - is to drop one of their batters and include a fourth frontline seamer, which would give England significantly more flexibility with the ball but slightly compromise their batting depth. There would be challenges if England lost early wickets and Eoin Morgan's form means that it is a bold move to include him as one of six batters, but with dew likely to play a major role in floodlit games, the prospect of having to bowl eight overs of spin with a wet ball in a run chase is too risky - not least with Rashid's legspin matching up poorly against a West Indies side featuring several left-handers.
The question, then, is which batter makes way, with Dawid Malan's place under pressure once again. Malan has a remarkable overall record across his T20I career, averaging 43.19 with a strike rate of 139.33, but his proclivity to play himself in - he tends to reach 10 off 10 balls - before looking to accelerate appears ill-suited to conditions in the UAE, while there are doubts about his ability to play top-quality spin after a relatively lean year in this format.
Malan may well have dominated a World Cup held in Australia - as the 2020 edition was due to be before its postponement - due to his strengths against fast bowling and his ability to hit spin through the line on true pitches, but innings of 18 off 18 and 11 off 15 in England's two warm-up games highlight the concern about his role here on slower surfaces. In the UAE leg of IPL 2021, 74% of games were won by the team scoring more runs in the first six overs, emphasising the importance of fast starts; in his T20I career, Malan strikes at just 111.97 in the powerplay.
Instead, England may end up with a relatively flexible batting line-up of Jonny Bairstow, Moeen, Livingstone and Morgan coming in behind Jason Roy and Jos Buttler, with entry points more important than order. Bairstow, for example, might come in at No. 3 if they were to lose a wicket inside the first over given his experience against the new ball, while Moeen would shuffle above him towards the end of the powerplay to utilise his ability against spin. Morgan has left open the unlikely possibility of dropping himself at some stage while Moeen and Livingstone are not totally guaranteed of their places - but if it would be bold to drop Malan, it would be bolder still to leave out one of two men in career-best six-hitting form.
Leaving out the man at No. 1 in the ICC's T20I batting rankings is a luxury that few teams could afford but England's batting is strong enough that it is starting to look like the logical remedy to their selection headache. When José Mourinho, Chelsea's manager at the time, brought the blanket analogy to English football, he concluded: "But the blanket I have is made of cashmere, so it's good." England will feel much the same, even if it means their heads are sticking out.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98