England’s T20 World Cup questions: Ben Stokes’ role? Jos Buttler to open? Mark Wood a must pick?
22nd March 2021

England haven’t won a white-ball, bi-lateral series in India since 1984-85. Their pushing of India all the way in the T20 series before ultimately succumbing to a 3-2 defeat, while disappointing, was not wholly surprising.

The two teams meet again for a three-match ODI series, starting Tuesday, and even though England are the 50-over World Cup holders, India will once more start as favourites.

This is about as tough a place to tour in white-ball cricket as there is; of their last 21 one-day series played at home, India have won 18 of them; in the T20 format, they’ve lost just two of their last 16 series on home soil.

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Despite the series defeat, England are still the No 1 ranked side in the world in T20 cricket and, though Eoin Morgan and Virat Kohli might disagree on who exactly are favourites for the T20 World Cup back in India in October, there is no doubt that Morgan’s men will be contenders for the crown.

That said, there are still plenty of important questions that need answering for this England side.

Where does Jos Buttler bat?

“It puts the debate to bed: he opens the batting in the World Cup,” Test team-mate Stuart Broad said of Buttler after he struck a T20I career-best 83 from 52 balls to see England to victory in the third match of the series.

“He is our best white-ball cricketer, he wins games of cricket for England and you want him facing as many balls as possible.”

That has certainly been the case made for Buttler at the top of the order. And it’s a compelling one, especially on the evidence of his match-winning knock that day and when looking at his stats since making the switch.

Buttler averages 48.46 in 19 games as an opener, with a strike rate of 153.05, while eight of his 12 half-centuries scored have come when teeing off at the top.

That said, Sky Sports’ Rob Key sees it differently, and believes Buttler’s best position is still as a ‘floater’ in the middle order, allowing him to be England’s finisher.

“I completely see what England are doing, and I think ‘fine’. After he scores fifty, give me as much stick as you like, but I won’t change my mind,” he said after Buttler put England into a 2-1 series lead.

“I would never have Buttler down as an opener. I know his record is fantastic, but there are so many other options.

“I would have him floating. If seven or eight overs have gone, and one wicket goes down, ‘in you go, Jos’. You don’t wait to bring him in then, but it’s a case of having a point where it’s ‘Buttler time’.”

Are England getting enough out of Ben Stokes?

One of the alternative options at the top of the order is Stokes, arguably England’s best player across all formats but who is currently wasted at No 6 in the batting order and as a fifth or sixth option for a few overs with the ball.

Stokes is still to hit a fifty in 34 T20Is. He has not been required to bat in three of his last six matches and faced only 56 balls in the entire series.

“He doesn’t strike me as someone absolutely happy to come in with five overs to go at No 6,” said Key.

“When he has done well in the IPL, it’s been up the order. Even when he got a hundred at No 5, he came in in the first two overs.”

Stokes has scored two IPL hundreds, one when opening the batting – in place of Buttler – for Rajasthan Royals in 2020, and another for Rising Pune Supergiant in 2017 where, as Key says, Stokes was required to come to the crease inside the opening two overs.

Could England suddenly look at making that same switch: Stokes for Buttler at the top of the order? Or might he benefit from a nudge up just one or two spots?

There is another reason as to why there is a compelling case for Stokes’ promotion…

England’s trio of left-handers

“That middle order needs looking at,” former England captain Nasser Hussain said after the tourists’ defeat in the fourth game.

Chasing 186 to win, England were well placed at 131-3 in the 15th over, with Stokes (46) and Jonny Bairstow (25) having put on a 65-run partnership. But the game turned with the departure of the right-handed Bairstow.

India seamers Shardul Thakur (3-42) and Hardik Pandya (2-16) swiftly ran through lefties Stokes, Morgan (4) and Sam Curran (3) in the next three overs, taking pace off the ball, bowling off-cutters away from the left-handers – which proved problematic for England throughout the series.

Hussain added: “That’s why they talk about these ‘match-ups’, as the moment the ball is coming into the arc, you get belted out of the ground – whether it is spin or seam.

“Three left-handers going in one after the other, up against a bowler [Thakur] who finds bowling off-cutters to left handers very easy, it just gave the momentum to India.”

Liam Livingstone and Sam Billings were right-handed alternatives in the squad, but there’s no easy fix for England.

Morgan, as captain, plays. Stokes could move up the order, as discussed, but with Buttler’s fine form opening and a big score of 68 for the under-pressure Dawid Malan in the fifth and final game, it’s not obvious where to. And what about Curran?

What is Sam Curran’s role in the side?

If Stokes had a right to feel underused in the series, then Curran can feel even more aggrieved.

Somewhat surprisingly picked to play every game over the closest contender for his spot – second-spin option Moeen Ali – Curran bowled only 10 overs spread across the five matches and faced only 13 balls with the bat.

“Curran’s role interests me,” Michael Atherton said following the series defeat. “I am not quite sure what it is. Is he a new-ball swing bowler or someone to bowl cutters at the end?

“Do they fancy him as a hitter as he was pushed down the order?”

Curran suffered the ignominy of being shunted down to No 9, to break up that aforementioned trio of left-handers, as England went in pursuit of a mammoth 225-run target in the final game of the series.

He proceeded to show off his talents by striking two of his three balls for sixes, with the game gone in the final over, but Curran’s position in the side seems uncertain at best.

The problem England have is that his likely replacement for the T20 World Cup, Moeen, is another left-hander – and similar questions to the ones being asked of the current set-up of the side would remain.

Has Mark Wood booked a World Cup spot?

“I think the biggest positive of the series has been Wood. He has bowled with great pace and hostility, taken wickets and, crucially, he has taken powerplay wickets,” said Atherton.

“I would say England now have three nailed-on bowlers in Wood, Jofra Archer and Adil Rashid.”

While there are questions to be resolved in this T20 team, Wood’s spot is not one of them, with the England quick (who touched 96mph!) taking five wickets at an average of 25.80 in his four games – returns that could have looked even better, were it not for a wicketless four overs costing 53 runs as India ran riot in the final game.

The key for Wood is keeping him fit. He missed the second match due to a foot injury and, given his treacherous injury record over the years, coupled with England’s relentless schedule in 2021, it’s no guarantee he can be consistently called upon for the World Cup come October.

England play seven Test matches this summer (two vs New Zealand, five vs India) and there is the small matter of the Ashes this winter, but Key feels England should prioritise Wood for white-ball cricket.

“His record in Test cricket in England isn’t quite as good and it could be the same thing in Australia where it’s about hitting the pitch hard and release points being higher,” Key said of Wood.

“Olly Stone can come in for that. I think it is absolutely vital England prioritise Mark Wood for white-ball cricket over anything else, even if it means they bust him out in the T20 World Cup and he can’t make the Ashes.

“The World T20 is where he will make his biggest impact.”

Any other questions?

Jason Roy, under pressure after a lean run with the bat prior to the India series, likely did enough to keep hold of his opener’s berth with three scores in the 40s, while Malan too – the No 1 ranked T20 batsman in the world – lives to fight another day after his series-ending half-century, just as chatter was beginning to surround his spot in the side.

Should Malan struggle in his first stint in the IPL with Punjab Kings, then suddenly the likes of Joe Root, Alex Hales, Livingstone and Billings could all be back in play – the latter two more likely allowing for that Stokes promotion up to No 3.

With regards to the bowling, as Atherton alludes to, England have certainly got three spots solved in Wood, Archer and Rashid – who, in particular, was mightily impressive once again, especially when operating in a new role in the powerplay overs.

Chris Jordan, spectacular catches on the boundary aside, is perhaps less assured of his place after a series in which he was the only England bowler (four games minimum) to concede in excess of 10 an over, while he claimed just four wickets at an average of 49.50.

Counting in Jordan’s favour, however, is his IPL experience in India, his credit in the bank for some fine death-bowling efforts over the past five years and, to an extent, a lack of options banging down the door.

England love Tom Curran and he certainly could yet force his way into the side, though not on the evidence of his two overs for 26 runs when seeing his solitary action in place of the injured Wood in the second game of the series. Beyond that, Reece Topley went unused, but could earn a chance to impress in the ODI series.

They might not be favourites for the World Cup come October, and though they have selection issues to resolve, they are ‘problems’ that England will welcome in their pursuit of winning both 50-over and T20 world titles.

Watch England’s first ODI against India, in Pune, live from 7.30am on Tuesday on Sky Sports Cricket and Sky Sports Main Event. You will also be able to follow text commentary and in-play clips through our live blog on skysports.com and the Sky Sports app.

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