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“West Indies are a strong team with a lot of experience,” Eoin Morgan said on Friday. “They have a lot of guys who have been around a long time. We’ve played them a lot over the last three years, but it has been a long time since we’ve played them in a T20 World Cup and we look forward to it.”
A long time, but perhaps not long enough. On Saturday the teams meet in their first match of this World Cup, five-and-a-half years after they played the last match of the last one, an encounter decided in a dizzying final over in which Carlos Brathwaite hit four sixes in four balls to steal the trophy from an England side whose minds had already started to drift towards their victory lap.
Precisely half of the players who took the field for that game are back for more, seven of England’s and four from West Indies, and even though five years is an age for any sportsman on one side wounds are still raw while on the other joyous memories remain fresh.
On the eve of the rematch Morgan was asked about his players’ journeys from that day to this, and whether they have truly been able to leave that night behind them. “I think some of the biggest disappointments in anyone’s career are more learnings than scars,” he said. “I think if they were scars we would have lost a lot of players who wouldn’t have progressed like they have done over the last four or five years.”
The same question was put to Kieron Pollard, the West Indies captain, and it turned out he had thrown a party on Thursday night where the whole squad watched it back again. “We had a get-together as a team and as a family and it was nice to see the smiles on the guys’ faces,” he said. “It’s something we saw as a team last night and it brought goosebumps back to us. I don’t think it’ll have a big bearing on the game because it’s a totally different situation, but it’s definitely going to be in the back of their minds.”
Many of England’s players have won a 50-over World Cup since then – success here and Morgan would join MS Dhoni as the only captains to win both short-form competitions – and have established themselves as sought-after participants in the global franchise treadmill. There is only one way to improve on England’s showing last time, but Morgan is certain that he is now leading a stronger team: “Going into 2016 we were more of an afterthought, as opposed to being considered a genuine side that could or would progress through the tournament.”
They are now ranked No 1 in the world, having won more Twenty20 internationals than any other side over the last two years. “We’ve shown that we can get 200 or maybe more, and also play the dogfight game – the 130 or 140 games,” Morgan said. “I think the side that adapts to all three venues the best will go on and win – and within our squad we have the ability to do that.”
When Morgan was asked whether this tournament represented a last hurrah for an ageing group he insisted that “the mainstays are coming into the peak of their powers really – [Jos] Buttler, [Ben] Stokes, [Jofra] Archer, [Jason] Roy, [Jonny] Bairstow”. Two of the first three names he mentioned are injured, setbacks the likes of which no other side in this competition has had to deal with. It may transpire that England are unable to recover from them, but the fact they are still so feared is a remarkable illustration of their strength and standing.
Without Stokes, Morgan must decide whether to have a long tail but plenty of bowling options, or to bat deep and bowl shallow. That decision will depend on the opposition, the wicket, the ground and even the weather, and for now he is giving little away. “I think the experience of playing in conditions that we will come up against is going to be key in this tournament,” he said. “So guys that have played here previously.”
Most of England’s players fall comfortably into that category, though notably Mark Wood has played only two T20 matches on World Cup grounds. There is also the question of whether Dawid Malan, the world’s top-ranked T20 batsman but often not instantly explosive, will be squeezed out of the side by Moeen Ali and Liam Livingstone. With batting second expected to be a significant advantage in evening matches, perhaps Morgan’s most important decision of all will come at the toss.
West Indies have the batting might to punish any frailties, and England’s introduction into this tournament will be anything but gentle. “There’s no hiding,” Morgan said. “You need to be the smartest, most experienced, most adaptable side in order to do well.”
There is no doubting England’s potential, just how effectively they will put all those learnings into practice.