To finish the international summer, a clash of Ashes rivals but not quite as we know it. At the Ageas Bowl on Friday there is the first of three Twenty20 internationals, after which come three one-day internationals up at Old Trafford. They will be unusual affairs. With no one in the stands who is going to deliver the sandpaper jibes? It is a bit much to ask the stewards or the photographers to hurl some abuse and to record a few derogatory chants about David Warner and Steve Smith to be replayed at the venue as background noise might seem a little inhospitable.
Moreover, both sides are being incredibly polite to one another. Justin Langer spoke with some awe about England’s one-day cricketers. “They are dangerous,” he said. Aaron Finch, Australia’s very impressive white-ball captain, acknowledged that England “have been playing great cricket for a few years. They blew us out of the water,” he said in reference to their last meeting, which was in a World Cup semi-final last summer. Meanwhile, Eoin Morgan said: “Australia have their strongest squad here so I’d probably say they’re just favourites.”
Both captains were also in agreement about the appeal of any clashes between the sides. “It’s a great rivalry,” said Finch. “England against Australia is huge even if you’re just playing in the street.” He was not too bothered by the absence of any spectators, making this valid point: “As cricketers we have spent 95% of the time playing in front of no one at club and even state level.”
The Australians have a settled side, which is ranked No 1 in the world at the moment. Their major pacemen are all here; they like to play two spinners – Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa – and their batting is strong enough to have them omitting the prolific Marnus Labuschagne and the hard-hitting all-rounder Marcus Stoinis from their best XI.
England welcome four players back from the Test bubble – Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Sam Curran – but they are missing the injured Jason Roy and Ben Stokes (on compassionate leave) from their best team. And they are still considering what constitutes their favoured line-up.
Currently that does not include Joe Root as Morgan explained. “We have had that conversation with Joe and he certainly does have a future [in this format]. The conversation was about Joe not getting in the best XI at the moment. We didn’t want to carry him around and for him not to play any cricket. Joe really wants to play T20 and put his best case forward particularly when he does not have much opportunity to go back to Yorkshire. We felt it was really a good opportunity for him to do that.”
The case for Root in the final XI may be enhanced by the possibility of spin-friendly surfaces in India when the rescheduled World T20 takes place. Currently there is also some debate over the order in which Morgan’s batsmen line up. This hinges on what to do with England’s most potent trump card, Buttler. In his last outing – at Centurion in February – he opened the batting (hitting 57 from 29 balls) and Morgan said that this will continue “for the moment” despite the wealth of options at the top of the order.
“He will open with Jonny (Bairstow) tomorrow. Like I have said before, we will continue with this until we feel that it’s not working. We feel that Jason (Roy), Jonny and Jos are three of our greatest ever white-ball players. They are unbelievable strikers of the ball, batsmen who you do not want to bowl against. If one of the three of them gets going past the first six overs of the powerplay and into those middle overs, it puts us in a really strong position.”
Morgan also confirmed that if Roy had been fit then Bairstow would have batted at three but he declined to say who would take that position on Friday – presumably it will be either Dawid Malan or Tom Banton.
Buttler has experience down the order but Morgan explains the thinking. “We always pose the question of how do we get the best out of all of our players. With regard to Jos at the moment we feel the more balls he faces, the more influence he can have on the game. If down the line we find things haven’t exactly worked out we can always fall back on Jos in the middle order.”
Archer is likely to play his first white-ball match for England since the World Cup final and just his second T20 international for England. “It’s great to have him back,” said Morgan. And, whisper it quietly, it is also great to have the Aussies back to entertain us at the end of this bizarre and unprecedented English summer.