At the end of a convincing series win over New Zealand came an admission from Jos Buttler that an England squad previously thought to be locked and loaded for their defence of the 50-over World Cup may yet be tweaked before the departure lounge.
After Dawid Malan’s frictionless 127 set up a 100-run victory at Lord’s on Friday and with it a 3-1 scoreline, Buttler was asked if his mind was made up on the final 15 for India and if it was simply a case of informing the players. “No,” replied England’s white-ball captain, accepting there was still a little bit to ponder.
While neither Adil Rashid nor Mark Wood appeared during the 50-over leg of New Zealand’s visit, the main issue that Buttler and the selection panel will debate in the coming days is Jason Roy. Named in England’s provisional World Cup squad last month, he similarly sat out all four one-day internationals with a bout of lower back spasms.
But unlike that pair – a couple of genuine trump cards in the middle overs – Roy’s absence over the past fortnight allowed Malan to make a compelling case to not just make the squad but also the XI that starts the tournament in Ahmedabad on 5 October. That New Zealand are their opponents that day only furthers his appeal.
Described as cover for Roy and Jonny Bairstow by Luke Wright, the selector, when naming the provisional World Cup squad last month, Malan peeled off 277 runs in three outings against the Black Caps, becoming the joint-fastest Englishman to 1,000 ODI runs (21 innings, level with Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott) in the process.
As such, assuming the top six avoid any slips on the golf course between now and the flight to India on 27 September, the question is who the new spare batter will be and it is here where England appear undecided. Even if Roy gets fit it may be that, as a middle-order player, the previously overlooked Harry Brook represents the shrewder pick.
There are three more late-summer ODIs against Ireland before take-off, with Brook among a wholly second-string squad captained by Zak Crawley. Buttler has hinted Roy may also be added to these understudies but as a specialist opener he would represent cover for only one spot in India. If a player further down were to get injured, drafting him in would force a greater reshuffle of the order.
Not that it will be an easy decision. Roy was a central cog when the English white-ball revolution got under way eight years ago and never more so than during the 2019 World Cup. Only when he hurriedly returned from a mid-tournament hamstring strain did the their campaign burst into Technicolor, scores of 66, 60 and 85 sealing the place in the final.
As Buttler stressed at Lord’s on Friday, loyalty has been one of the central tenets of England’s golden period in the shorter formats; that only by removing the threat of being dropped and giving players the licence to fail could they achieve the unshackled one-day cricket that his predecessor, Eoin Morgan, was demanding.
“You can’t just pick a World Cup squad from these four games,” says Buttler. “[Loyalty] has been one of the hallmarks of selection. We need to find out all the information over the next few days to make what will be a really tough decision. We’re blessed with so many good white-ball cricketers but in a World Cup, you can only take 15.”
Roy has tested that loyalty since his throw to Buttler sealed the trophy they are now looking to defend. There has been the odd burst of form – including centuries against South Africa and Bangladesh this year – but also long fallow periods with England and domestically, resulting in that omission from the T20 World Cup win in late 2022.
Brook, meanwhile, has been something of a cause célèbre this past month, with many surprised by his exclusion from the provisional squad. That said, despite responding with a 42-ball century in the Hundred, and scores of 43 not out and 67 for England’s T20 side, the talented young Tyke’s numbers since – 8, 4, 25, 2, 10 – have not settled the argument.
In the past week, Malan and David Willey have revealed that confirmation of their place in the provisional squad last month came with an assurance they would be travelling to the World Cup. If Roy was told the same, he may well be left feeling aggrieved. This reflects the awkwardness of naming provisional squads so far out. They have been requested for global tournaments in recent years to give the organisers a head start on things like marketing bumf and visas.
Late changes are not uncommon and England are no strangers here, drafting in Jofra Archer, James Vince and Liam Dawson at the 11th hour four years ago and standing down Willey, Joe Denly and Alex Hales in the process.
Archer may well join the party this time, too, even if he is not in the official squad. Andrew Flintoff has been mitting to England’s quicks this past fortnight and can vouch for the speeds Archer has been hitting during the final stages of his recovery from stress fractures. Though not yet quite ready, the 28-year-old could yet travel in reserve.
In the meantime it is likely that Surrey’s Gus Atkinson – 25 years old and three caps into his ODI career – will be the second outright quick in the full squad, acting as understudy to Wood and allowing rotation during the group stages. Durham’s Brydon Carse, another in the group to face Ireland next week, is the alternative here.
Otherwise, it will be a largely seasoned final 15 named this week, Buttler catching himself when using the term “Dad’s Army” but duly noting the age and experience. There are a couple of niggles to assess, while Joe Root has looked strangely out of sorts. But when the identity of the spare batter is the chief talking point, things still augur well.