MANCHESTER: The concept of the points-based “Super Series”, trialled last summer to add over-arching context to the sport’s three different formats, was quietly put into mothballs ahead of this season. But had it still been in existence, we’d have been geared up for an improbably thrilling climax to the second tour of the English summer.
Following West Indies’ victory in Saturday’s one-off T20 and their stunning run-chase in the second Test at Headingley, England’s lead would have been a narrow eight points to six with a possible 10 still up for grabs – an ideal level of intrigue leading into the latest finish to an English season on record. And yet … taken in its own context (and leaving aside the threat of cold, wet conditions and potentially indifferent crowds), this particular one-day series requires remarkably little artifice to have an interest all of its own.
Part of that may be due to a tinge of desperation on the part of the visitors – West Indies, currently ranked No.9 in the world in ODIs, are in serious peril of missing out on automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup – they will need a 4-0 or 5-0 series win to vault into the top eight positions. And even if that challenge proves beyond them, the fact that the World Cup will be taking place on English soil in barely 18 months’ time means that there are still plenty of benefits to be had in this reconnaissance mission.
More pertinently, however, the coming five matches represent the first trickle of a new era for West Indies cricket following the thawing in relations between their senior players and the CWI. A pair of star batsmen are back in harness for this trip – Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels – with the promise of more to come if further progress can be made in negotiations. It’s small steps, but significant ones, given how far apart the two parties have been since last year’s World T20, when it could be argued that the righteous fury that the board ignited within a tight-knit squad turned out to be a major factor in their surge to the trophy.
For England, too, there is plenty at stake in the coming few days. They have put so much into their white-ball cricket in recent seasons that this brief outing – sandwiched as it is between seven home Tests and the rapidly approaching Ashes tour – seems an odd throwback to the pre-2015 era in which one-day cricket was seen as a second-class citizen. All the more reason, therefore, for Eoin Morgan’s men to put their best feet forward as the season draws to a close, and keep that precious “momentum” (whatever that really entails…) bubbling into their new-year engagements in Australia and New Zealand. It is a measure of the progress made by England in recent months that their last ODI outing was such a bitter anti-climax.
Previous one-day teams might have been delighted to make it as far as the final four of a global tournament, but there was barely disguised dismay as England crashed to defeat in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy against the eventual champions, Pakistan, in Cardiff, after their riotous run-makers were left floundering by the pace and hostility of, in particular, Junaid Khan and Hasan Ali.
In the spotlight: He’s days away from his 38th birthday, and in terms of his career, he’s already deeper into autumn than even this English season. But there’s an inevitable sense of new beginnings for Chris Gayle, as he prepares for what will be his first ODI appearance since the 2015 World Cup, already two and a half years ago. Gayle showed during his brief and explosive foray at Chester-le-Street that he remains a formidable campaigner, still without equal when it comes to dispatching length deliveries into the ether, of which there were far too many in England’s gullible bowling performance in Saturday’s T20. His running between the wickets, never exactly a strength even in his heyday, remains an Achilles heel. But he’s got his sights firmly set on the 2019 World Cup, and amid the thawing of relationships with CWI, who would bet against him securing his dream farewell?
It’s not the same format, but there will be several of the same players ready to greet him as he makes his return to the white-ball fray. Ben Stokes was controversially omitted from England’s ranks in the one-off T20 at his home ground in Durham, but now he’s back on parade, and reunited with the team that swiped his dream, and his final over, into the night sky in Kolkata 18 months ago. Most significantly, perhaps, Stokes will be reunited with Marlon Samuels – a player who has been under his skin and in his face for the best part of two years. Salutes, taunts and a truck-load of vitriol has flowed between two players who wear their hearts on their sleeves. It’s not always edifying viewing, but it’s rarely less than entertaining. And given the importance of the two characters to their teams, whoever wins their personal duel will go a long way to winning the overall contest.
Teams news: Given how tough Jonny Bairstow has found it to break into England’s first-choice XI, it is quite a surprise – though an entirely merited one – that he has been preferred once again to Jason Roy at the top of England’s order. Roy received unequivocal backing throughout the group stages of the Champions Trophy, but eventually had to give way through his sheer dearth of runs. Bairstow did his best with 41 from 57 balls in a low-scoring semi-final – only Joe Root managed more for England – and, in the words of his captain, Eoin Morgan, “he deserves a chance to make the position his own.” England will be strengthened significantly from the T20 line-up with the return of their two allrounders, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali. Chris Woakes may be in line for his ODI return, having suffered a side strain in the opening match of the Champions Trophy, but Tom Curran – impressive in his three T20s to date – could be in line for a debut.
West Indies’ T20 squad contained none of the Test players who made names for themselves during the first leg of their tour, but the ODI squad is an amalgam of the two formats – with the likes of Shai Hope, the breakout star of the Test series, and Jason Holder, blended in with the likes of Gayle and Samuels. Jason Holder returns to his leadership duties in place of Carlos Brathwaite.
Alex Hales, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan (capt), Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler (wk), Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Tom Curran, Jake Ball, Liam Plunkett
West Indies (possible): Chris Gayle, Evin Lewis, Marlon Samuels, Shai Hope (wk), Kyle Hope, Rovman Powell, Jason Holder (capt), Jason Mohammed, Alzarri Joseph, Jerome Taylor, Kesrick Williams.