Bilateral T20I games are often a formality played at the fag end of a long tour or at the very beginning even as talks of the bigger Test series takes precedence.
T20 is possibly the most popular format in the game right now, but international bilateral series do not often have a lot of interest around them mainly because of the fact that it adds no context and there's no bigger picture to cater to. Add in the fact that teams mostly rest their big guns for these T20I series and you have a drab late-night affair that most fans, even the fanatical ones, don't really care about.
Yet, this England tour of South Africa promises to be different, at least from an English perspective. It's interesting to note that England have rested Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Sam Curran from their ODI squads but have a full-strength T20I squad. It's not often that teams do this: resting players from ODIs, but keeping them on for T20Is.
Even with teams preparing for the T20 World Cup next year, it is a queer move from England but one purely driven by their intention of identifying their best team for the big event next year.
A major issue with most T20 teams is that they are heavily packed at the top and fizzle out towards the middle-order and lower middle-order. Teams have a plethora of options at the top of the order but barely have anyone putting their hands up for a middle-order role, an unfancied one in the shortest format of the game.
Simplifying T20 batting order debates to a player’s stats when they open the batting ignores the complexity of team building. Almost all players prefer opening. Whether they do should be dependent on what is optimal for the team, not the player & they aren’t always the same.— Freddie Wilde (@fwildecricket) November 20, 2020
England's quandary is similar. Their T20I squad named for the series against South Africa has as many as five evident opening options: Jos Buttler, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Sam Curran. Add to the list Moeen Ali (opened in 59 innings), Dawid Malan (opened in 105 innings) and Sam Billings (opened in 25 innings).
That's eight players right there, all tussling for a role in the top-order with the only proper middle-order batsman, not vying for an opening slot at least, being Eoin Morgan.
Out of the eight, Moeen, Billings and Malan are likely to slot in the middle with Malan, the No. 1 ranked player, being a much-discussed selection despite his incredible run of form. Malan will likely continue at No. 3. Billings is a doubtful starter despite his range while Moeen should slot in the middle-order alongside Morgan.
This leaves five options at the top. Sam Curran too might be in for a lower middle-order role given the sheer number of options in the squad. While Bairstow and Roy have opened in the past, and Roy comes off the back of scores of 67, 69, 70, 40 and 7 (the last three against South Africa), England might want to see where they can fit in Buttler and Stokes before deciding to find a place for Roy.
Bairstow has had an incredible time as opener in the shortest format of the game and is arguably a lock for one of the opening slots. This might just leave England with no room for Roy, simply because they can't afford to not have either Buttler or Stokes opening.
This puts Stokes and Buttler in direct competition against each other for the remaining one spot.
Buttler's numbers as an opener are incredibly good in this format. And Stokes being Stokes makes it difficult for England to keep him on the bench despite his mediocre T20 record.
Thankfully for England, Rajasthan showed them the way in the recent past during the league in UAE. Buttler, by his own admission, chose to move down the order as Rajasthan needed a big hitter. England have Morgan and Sam Curran for the duties, but utilising Ben Stokes best in a T20 line-up is something they have struggled with and Rajasthan showed them the way.
Buttler is as flexible a batsman as it comes in this format of the game and while the opening is indeed his best position, his middle-order prowess is still well above what an average middle-order batsman can contribute. As for openers, England have options in plenty and with Stokes clearly not a great middle-order batsman and his danger multiplied at the top, it's a move England ought to try and replicate sooner rather than later.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Randy Brooks