There’s a pleasant sense of relief this week, as we head into an Australia-England cricket contest without an accompanying circus of hype.
Nobody is crowing about a limited-overs series constituting the Twenty20 Ashes, as the marketing departments might once have attempted. Instead the three matches between Sunday and Friday will be rightly seen as warm-ups for the T20 World Cup, even if they’re not part of the official warm-up program that will see Australia play once against India, and England once against Pakistan, before the tournament proper.
This should be a series of relative restraint, with sides looking to find a groove against quality opposition and answer a couple of final selection questions. That fits with the feeling that even the tournament proper is not exactly stirring swells of anticipation. The previous T20 trophy was won less than 11 months ago. The 2024 edition in the Caribbean and United States will be the third in less than three years. The schedule trivialises the concept of a World Cup. These are exhibition tournaments for a funding sugar-hit, not meaningful paths to defining the team of an era. The 50-over format may be declining bilaterally, but the ODI World Cup retains its cachet, while not coincidentally retaining its quadrennial structure alongside its football equivalent and the Olympic Games.
So it is. People will still watch what they don’t retain, and as the modern seer Taylor Swift has observed, the players will continue to play. With their short careers and the vagaries of the format, most cricketers don’t mind a couple of extra attempts at winning a prize to pad out their commentary CVs. Australia’s win in the 2021 edition, on pay television from the Arabian Gulf in the middle of the night, got a muted reaction compared to the likely response of winning at home. England, meanwhile, have been underachievers in the shortest format while leading a white-ball revolution from 2015. They lost the 2016 final to the free-swinging West Indies and got politely mugged by New Zealand in the 2021 semi. The most destructive batting side in the world through that era has one 50-over World Cup to show for it.
In many ways that era is over, though principles of aggression and some personnel remain. Eoin Morgan called it quits, Jason Roy ran out of runs, Jonny Bairstow impossibly blew his leg off playing golf, Jofra Archer was the bowler of 2019 and has been head of the injury list since, Joe Root was deemed too slow, Liam Plunkett got pensioned off, Mark Wood is always one mile per hour from injury, Ben Stokes has been drafted back in despite never doing much in the format.
The consistent presences from the start of Morgan’s era to now are new captain Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan, Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid.
Alex Hales and David Willey got booted sufficiently long ago that they have had time to cycle away from the team and work back. Newer blood like Harry Brook, Phil Salt, Liam Livingstone, and the left-arm thunderbolt merchant Reece Topley will need to run hot for England to maintain their old level.
Australian selectors, meanwhile, have to make decisions about whether they will make any decisions. Their squad could produce the exact same XI that won the World Cup in Dubai last year. That won’t be the case in the series opener against England, with the main four bowlers and six-hitter Glenn Maxwell being spared the long trip to Perth in favour of resting. Fringe players will get a gallop on the park and a last chance to impress, supplemented by players from outside the squad. But the second and third matches in Canberra will give a better sense of the tournament plan.
Australian selection style has been conservative since Bradman’s day, so it was amusing to see a Test pace attack picked for a T20 World Cup – and then win the thing. They will get another chance as long as Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc stay fit alongside spinner Adam Zampa. The same caution will see selectors stick with Aaron Finch despite his traditional run-drought before a big tournament, and Marcus Stoinis as the incumbent all-rounder despite recent claims in his absence of Cameron Green from outside the squad.
David Warner at the top of the order is still the most productive bat, while keeper Matthew Wade has been irreproachable as a number seven finisher. Mitchell Marsh will bat at three as he did in his trophy-clinching performance last year, and might bowl medium pace.
Maxwell will float around the middle order and bowl off-spin. The only real question is whether to bow to reputation and keep Steve Smith in the side, or use the power of new boy Tim David. Smith is innovative but often doesn’t maintain a high enough run rate, while David is the kind of player who can take 30 from 10 balls at the end of an innings to change a match.
Even Australian selectors can sometimes take a punt on a good thing.