Expect England’s one-day series against Pakistan to take a step up in intensity on Saturday. Babar Azam will demand a response from his wounded tourists after losing to a borderline C team in Cardiff, while Lord’s hosts cricket’s first capacity crowd in this country since the golden summer of 2019.
But however the remaining two ODI matches play out, England have pulled off something impressive this week. Ben Stokes aside (and even he is back early from injury), the fact an emergency squad can be assembled at such short notice and perform like they did on Thursday – skittling an admittedly undercooked Pakistan for 141 in a nine-wicket victory – says plenty about the system that has, to date, underpinned the national team.
When England stunk out the 2015 World Cup there followed a chorus of voices bemoaning the lack of a franchise T20 competition for player development; this was the missing link, we were told. Yet the cricketers who rose to the summit under Eoin Morgan four years later, and the reserves demonstrating the depth of the talent beneath them this week, are ultimately children of the 18-team T20 Blast and the Royal London Cup.
A good number have broadened their horizons with the Lions or in overseas competitions, no question. Take Saqib Mahmood, who returned from the Pakistan Super League this year enhanced by way of confidence and skills before settling matters at Sophia Gardens with a sizzling four-wicket display. Even if things go south for England results-wise from here – Pakistan are not Sri Lanka – the 24-year-old has made a significant statement.
But too often English cricket fails to look inwards when dispensing the credit. As Somerset’s Lewis Gregory said after sharing the new ball with Saqib and nicking off Mohammad Rizwan during the powerplay: “There are a lot of guys who are thankful for what county cricket has given them.”
Gregory, who has played in the PSL and the Big Bash, continued: “The standard in English cricket is very, very good and I think you see that across the Blast and the Royal London competition. The only thing is, the majority of [overseas competitions] see their national players back playing. [But] the standard compares to these other competitions, definitely.”
The depth is also reflected in the backroom staff. Alan Richardson is overseeing England’s seamers for the very first time this week and is a coach who, while still only 46, has been to five T20 Finals Days and two Royal London finals during his time at Warwickshire and Worcestershire, with two trophies to show for it. Chris Silverwood, the head coach, knew he was calling on a banker.
English cricket will soon mutate with the arrival of the Hundred, however, and, on the subject of backroom staff, it’s remarkable that not a single Brit will be a head coach in the men’s tournament. There are many redeeming features through its platform for the women’s game and some of the marketing and broadcast partnerships it has unlocked. And the money being spent suggests it will do well to fail (even if paying live musicians more than many of the women’s players highlights the inequality it claims to address).
But as well as pursuing a complicated new format not played at international level in the hope other countries follow suit, the Hundred has also elbowed the T20 Blast aside for the peak month of summer, while the Royal London Cup will limp on directly underneath minus a quarter of its usual talent pool. It may well be that the pressure and profile of 100-ball cricket will only augment white-ball skills further, but even the evangelists here must accept this isn’t a given.
And so as a packed out Lord’s prepares to host England’s one-day team for the first time since the 2019 World Cup final, and we marvel at how a national side shorn of at least 20 players can still put together a competitive XI, it is worth remembering that both feats are reflections of the system that sat in place previously. For better or for worse, things are about to change significantly.
England (possible): Phil Salt, Dawid Malan, Zak Crawley, James Vince, Ben Stokes (c), John Simpson (wk), Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton, Brydon Carse, Saqib Mahmood, Matt Parkinson
Pakistan (possible): Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam (c), Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Saud Shakeel, Sohaib Maqsood, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf