As England embark on their tour to Sri Lanka that begins on 26th November, all eyes will be on Alastair Cook’s side – particularly with a potentially defining few months ahead.
That goes without saying. Interest in the England team is always high, but this series acts as a prelude to the ICC World Cup in early 2015. It is more than an opportunity to get some game-time in the fifty-over format, it also serves as a chance to prove the doubters wrong – many who believe that England are not among the sides who will be contending for the sport’s biggest prize in the limited-overs format come late March.
The selectors have long struggled to find a settled XI in the shorter forms of the game, something they haven’t yet managed to completely do in the Test arena either of late. In this sense, playing a series in testing conditions in Sri Lanka is beneficial as a barometer of where the team stand at present.
While England are among the very best in the world at Test level, consistency has long been a problem in one-day cricket. It serves as a conundrum that the ECB have struggled to solve, and has plagued England as far back as the Duncan Fletcher era. That’s despite having had a spell under the leadership of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower who led England, momentarily, to number one in all formats of the game a few years ago.
The same questions that were being asked after the last World Cup in the sub-continent in 2011, are still being asked now. Who should open alongside the captain? Should England employ two spinners? Who fills the all-rounder void and how do England best accommodate stroke-makers like Eoin Morgan?
Perhaps the first question (who should open the batting) might be becoming a little clearer. Moeen Ali, who has established himself as England’s spinning all-rounder in Test matches in 2014, opened the batting on Friday against Sri Lanka ‘A’ ahead of the highly-rated Alex Hales, and smashed six fours in one over on the way to a blistering 56 off of just 37 balls. Ali also highlighted the extent to which his bowling has improved in the past six months, by claiming 3-29 on the way to an England victory.
Now, while that may have been a warm-up game against a quality of opposition that simply doesn’t match what England will face in the coming months, it perhaps serves to illustrate that maybe the ECB are beginning to find these long awaited answers with regards to selection.
That said, question marks surround the inclusion of the likes of Chris Jordan, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes; three players who give batting depth, but provide the problem of whether all three can be accommodated within the same team.
Peter Moores and his coaching staff undoubtedly head to Colombo for the first one-day international on Wednesday treating this series very seriously indeed. This is not merely a warm-up for something bigger to come. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune the squad and ensure that the preparation is put in place now to ensure England give themselves the best chance of success.
In an era of cricket where greater precedence is placed on the limited, more lucrative forms of the game, England are one of a minority of nations who still prioritise the longer format; Test cricket. No one can deny the fact that a T20 or 50-over match is often very exciting, which has led to the development of money and sponsorship driven competitions such as the Indian Premier League. Such an example could be seen to compromise the long-term future of the five-day format.
Moreover, with the financial rewards involved in these competitions, as well as large attendances they draw, it’s not a surprise to see the game go down the route it’s currently heading down. In this sense, it exposes the fact that nations such as India are putting limited overs cricket before anything else. To some extent, it could be argued that this gives them an advantage when it comes to major tournaments as it affords them time to develop players who are equipped to be successful on the one-day stage.
That’s not to say, of course, that England do not produce a similar standard of player. The likes of Kevin Pietersen (before he was ostracised earlier this year), the aforementioned Morgan, and Jos Buttler to name but a few, are players who on their day are among the best in the world. Again it comes down to consistency which England have historically lacked.
With India’s cancelled series with the West Indies drawing criticism over politics within the game, as well as claims that Test cricket is taken an increasingly back-seat, India comprehensively beat Sri Lanka with Rohit Sharma obliterating the record for the highest score in a one-day game by hitting 264.
It is no surprise, therefore, to see that three of the top individual scores in one-day cricket history belong to former members of the Indian side – Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, the latter making 219 against the West Indies in 2011.
The international stage is not the only place where the shorter forms of the game are being prioritised, it is on the domestic scene too as touched upon earlier.
Now, of course England won’t want to make excuses before the World Cup, and even the forthcoming series with Sri Lanka, have even begun. Perhaps, the ECB will take confidence from the fact that no one gave England a chance when they won their first, and so far only, major tournament – the 2010 ICC World T20, although it should be said a lot has changed since then.
Recent one-day series results would suggest England are firmly underdogs when it comes to their chances of winning the World Cup next spring.
England lost two of the three one-day series they played this year: 3-1 to India over the summer and 3-2 to Sri Lanka in June. Their only victory was the 2-1 success in the one off series with the West Indies at the beginning of 2014.
The Sri Lanka series will tell us a lot about where England are in their preparations. Moores and Cook will both feel that England are in the frame alongside other leading ICC nations, but they have a lot to prove between now and then if they are to mount a serious challenge.
The talent is there, as is the depth. Consistency is undoubtedly the key to establishing the momentum, and come February we will know whether more work is required, or whether England are at least on the right road in a format of the game that has long provided a headache for the ECB.