CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde examines the most significant selection battle of England’s tour of New Zealand.
England’s T20 squad for their five match series against New Zealand contains six players yet to make their T20 international debut. Five of them, who haven’t played international cricket at any level, attracted the most attention: the opening batsman Tom Banton, the hard-hitting all rounder Lewis Gregory, the leg spinner Matt Parkinson, the slower ball specialist Pat Brown and the speedster Saqib Mahmood. The other uncapped player in the squad snuck under the radar – perhaps because he’s played eleven Tests and two ODIs – and that was the left-arm swing bowling all rounder Sam Curran.
While the five match series offers an opportunity for all five young men to force their way into England’s T20 World Cup plans, it seems that Banton, Parkinson and Brown are battling for back-up spots.
Even before Banton’s call-up England already had a surplus of top order options with Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Jason Roy all jostling for position, with Alex Hales also an—admittedly unlikely—reserve. Banton is an immensely talented batsman who has earned favourable comparisons with Buttler and Kevin Pietersen, but it would take something spectacular for him to displace the current trio at the top of the order.
The same can be said of Parkinson who finds himself behind Adil Rashid as England’s frontline wrist spinner. While England could pick two wrist spinners in their squad—India, Sri Lanka and South Africa may well do so—it would be a bold call, particularly in Australian conditions. Rashid’s troublesome shoulder may offer Parkinson a way in, but like Banton, ascension to the fifteen man squad remains unlikely.
Brown too, is probably going to find winning a position in the starting eleven tough. With Jofra Archer a guaranteed starter and who could bowl two overs at either end of the innings, Chris Jordan highly likely and Tom Curran fairly well set as the reserve, England’s death bowling options are well stocked.
It is at the start of the innings however, that things are more interesting because in amongst the flurry of exciting young selections in England’s squad it went largely unnoticed that David Willey was absent. With six major players—Buttler, Roy, Archer, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali seemingly rested—it is difficult to ascertain whether the same can be said of Willey. However, given Willey was left out of England’s ODI World Cup squad it does appear that his absence represents a dropping more than a resting and that is why the presence of S Curran and Mahmood—both new ball specialists—is particularly intriguing.
Firstly, it is worth saying that while England appear to be moving on from Willey they should do so with caution. Still only 29 years old—Willey may have fallen out of favour in 50-over cricket but he remains one of the very best T20 new ball bowlers not only in England, but in the world. Taking the new ball in the Powerplay is one of the most difficult jobs in the game with bowlers tasked with striking that fine balance between searching for swing and early wickets but without leaking runs during the field restrictions.
Since Willey made his T20 debut in May 2009 only four bowlers have taken more Powerplay wickets than his 83 and none of them have done so at a better strike rate than his 19.2 balls per wicket. Indeed among bowlers to have taken more than 50 wickets in the phase in this timeframe Willey’s strike rate is the third best of anyone. Wickets are their most valuable in the Powerplay and very few bowlers are as effective as the England left-armer at taking them.
It is not as if Willey’s recent form has been poor either – in fact his Powerplay strike rate in 2019 of 17.0 is his best since 2015 and in his four appearances for England this year he took six Powerplay wickets in only ten overs. If he has indeed been dropped, he can feel harshly done by.
If England are moving on from him this series represents the beginning of a contest between S Curran and Mahmood to replace him. Come next October, Archer will certainly take the new ball from one end with Jordan and perhaps Moeen or Rashid also likely to bowl an over in the phase as well, but if Willey is gone there is space for another bowler to assume wicket-taking responsibility and partner Archer with the new ball.
Mahmood and Curran bring different skills to the team. Mahmood’s primary attribute is his pace – with a top recorded speed of 142 kph. At only 22 years old he is blessed with natural ability to bowl fast: a precious skill. Mahmood’s career strike rate in the first six overs of 18.6 is impressive and is predicated largely on the fact that he can simply blast batsmen out.
Meanwhile Curran’s defining quality is his ability to swing the ball and the fact that, like Willey, he is a left-armer. Being a left-armer is useful in the Powerplay because even if the ball isn’t swinging the natural angle across the right-hander from over the wicket creates the illusion of movement and keeps the bowler in the game without having to depend on a swinging ball. S Curran and the death over duo of Harry Gurney and Tymal Mills are the only left-armers in the frame for World Cup selection and that different angle may help Curran’s case.
With a Powerplay strike rate of 24.2 Curran is a less proven wicket-taker in the phase than Mahmood, but unlike the Lancastrian speedster Curran offers genuine ability with the bat and if he could force his way into England’s top seven—unlikely but not impossible—he could provide a luxury left-arm swing option with the ball when conditions allow and could even play alongside Mahmood, an additional death overs bowler or even another spinner.
Something that might count against Curran is that in recent years the white Kookaburra ball is swinging appreciably less in the early phases of the innings. Mahmood meanwhile would not have to rely on conditions in the same way and is arguably more versatile than Curran whose natural lengths are less suited to the frenetic final few overs. The luxury of having Archer and Jordan though is that neither Willey or Mahmood would need to assume responsibility at the death – they could bowl their quota by the end of the middle overs.
In amongst all this uncertainty one thing is clear – while the New Zealand series represents new beginnings for a number of talented youngsters – for no one is the opportunity more significant than Curran and Mahmood. For them, a place in the team, not only the squad, is up for grabs. Let battle commence.
Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst. @fwildecricket