Like the main characters in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the cricket teams of England and New Zealand don’t seem to be able to go to a party without running into each other. There have been five meetings at major international tournaments since the start of 2015, and so far as England are concerned four have been raucous celebrations, and one very much a wake.
England’s humiliating thrashing in Wellington at the 2015 ODI World Cup was instrumental in propelling them towards their current state of white-ball excellence, with both of the sides that will meet in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday impacted in different ways by the team led then by Brendon McCullum. Since then their stars have seemed aligned, and now they are set for yet another sequel.
It is a match that became massively harder to predict in a single instant on Saturday night when Jason Roy set off for a single and his calf muscle refused to cooperate. While England will be particularly pained by the absence of their opener – a man Eoin Morgan said “epitomises everything that we are about in the changing room and the way that we play” – in many ways this is a match between two teams both suffering, in very different ways, from the same injury.
The impact on England is obvious, and it has forced them to approach their most important game of the tournament so far with an unwanted reorganisation. But that too impacts on New Zealand, whose tactical planning has been thrown into disarray. Had Roy been fit England would almost certainly have been unchanged for this game and New Zealand’s task would be more daunting but also more predictable. In his absence New Zealand have at the centre of their preparations a lot of guesswork and crossed fingers.
“I suppose whenever there’s an injury, someone else comes in and you’re not to know who they are until the toss,” Kane Williamson said. “But you try and prepare and plan as best you can and then when you go out there you’re sort of competing in the moment. Jason’s a big player for England but their depth is one of their strengths and we’ll try to plan accordingly to the best of our ability. Largely we want to focus on the sort of cricket that we want to play and keep developing on that as we’ve been doing throughout this tournament.”
Roy’s injury has taken what would have been a simple selection decision – likely an unchanged side – and made it extremely problematic, in a way that illustrates the tactical complexity of Twenty20 cricket.
The easiest decision is the identity of his replacement as opener, one Morgan has already made. He said on Tuesday that he was “blessed with guys who can bat at the top of the order and actually want to”, a sentiment that Dawid Malan put more memorably earlier this summer when he said there were “about 10 guys in this team” who “would all chew Eoin’s arm off for an opportunity to open”. But the likelihood is that Malan will remain frustrated in his pursuit of that position, and that Jonny Bairstow – who has opened in four of England’s last five T20 meetings with New Zealand – will join Jos Buttler at the top of the order.
This is potentially fruitful, bringing an established, aggressive batter into the powerplay where an explosive start can effectively decide the match. But it is also fraught with danger, exposing Bairstow to the Kiwis’ best bowlers, Trent Boult and Tim Southee, at the point when they are most dangerous.
But that still leaves a space in the team, and England’s more difficult decision is who to move into it. Here they must first choose whether to maintain the batting-heavy strategy that has seen them rely throughout the competition on two specialist batsmen, Liam Livingstone and Moeen Ali, to between them bowl at least four overs, or whether to pick another bowler, most likely one of the bowling all-rounders, Tom Curran and David Willey.
“I suppose replacing him with another bowler would mean that you have 28 genuine overs on the field and a lot of options,” Morgan said. “If you were to go with a batter, it would mean a like-for-like replacement. When we turn up and look at the wicket, if it’s going to be a really good batting wicket you might need the extra bit of bowling. If it’s not, you might need the extra bit of batting.”
It may help their decision-making that New Zealand have settled on a bowling-heavy strategy, and the best way to counter a side with significant bowling strength is obviously to bolster the batting. The specialist batters available to Morgan are James Vince, recently added to the squad to replace Roy and another who prefers to open, and Sam Billings, who seems a better fit for the newly vacated spot in the middle order.
For all their injuries England are still not short of options and for now their best one, as a movie scriptwriter might say, is to keep them guessing till the end.