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Given the timing, it is impossible not to contrast the five-match Twenty20 series between England and West Indies that starts in Barbados on Saturday with the other five-match England series that has just concluded. Other than the badge on the touring players’ shirts the contrast is almost total and, having witnessed their compatriots crumble under the intense pressure of the Ashes, the white-ball squad can enjoy having very little of their own to cope with. As Eoin Morgan said on Friday: “I think the whole tour is one where the development of our game is more important than the series win.”
Long, sandy beaches, warm weather and famously carefree spirit make the Caribbean the ideal place to escape from your troubles, but it is West Indies who have fresher scars to heal. The day after England’s fifth Test against Australia came to its ignominious conclusion in Hobart, Ireland won the deciding fixture of a three-match ODI series in Kingston. The home side’s captain, Kieron Pollard, admitted afterwards that he was “hurting, and hurting badly”. Meanwhile Sunday will mark three months since they were skittled for 55 by England in the opening game of a miserable defence of their Twenty20 World Cup title.
As with many great sides in sport, while other teams analysed their successful formula and improved on it, West Indies fell into the trap of assuming the same approach would continue to work and had no answer when, unexpectedly, it didn’t. Since winning four of five matches against Australia in July as they prepared for the World Cup they have lost eight and won just once – against an even more hapless Bangladesh side and by just three runs. They are currently ranked 10th in the format, just above Zimbabwe and Nepal. England, despite the disappointment of losing in the World Cup semi-finals, are top.
This will be a different West Indies side from the one England thrashed in Dubai in October, and of the 16 players in their squad 10 were not involved in the UAE as anything more than travelling reserves. “It’s a difficult situation if we had the same team from the World Cup, but we have a lot of new faces and a lot of guys who want to make an impression and be part of the team going forward,” Phil Simmons, West Indies’ head coach, said this week. “So I think from that point of view it’s not as difficult as it would seem.”
England have some familiar faces among their group – including Jofra Archer, who will not play but trained with the squad on Friday and even did some bowling in the nets, albeit very slowly and mostly with his left arm – and others less well-known such as Harry Brook, George Garton and David Payne, who are yet to play any international cricket, as well as Phil Salt, who having spent much of his childhood in Barbados should be particularly at home here.
All will have their sights set on a place on the plane to Australia this October, and with the multi-format players resting after the Ashes and Liam Livingstone missing at least the first match because of a non-Covid illness most will get a chance to shine, even if Morgan insisted that “I think for this tour it’s actually looking beyond the [next] World Cup”.
England’s first match of that tournament, in a group that also contains both 2021 finalists Australia and New Zealand, comes precisely nine months after the first match of this series, a period likely to be marked by no more than gentle evolution.
“We know our guys play really well in Australia,” Morgan said. “Looking towards our strongest squad, or our tactics, our strategy, it makes us feel a little bit more at ease than planning for conditions that we might not go into as one of the favourites. We know what works in Australia so the method that we’re trying to implement will be very, very similar to the method that we’ve used.”
It is hard to know whether yet more international cricket is the last thing England needs at this moment of misery-enforced introspection, or if it might provide the ideal tonic. “We will try to go out and enjoy ourselves, play with smiles on our faces,” Morgan said. “If we enjoy ourselves, hopefully other people will enjoy watching us play.