Meet the new boss: only slightly different from the old boss.
Ashley Giles's debut series as England's short-form cricket coach is unlikely to produce anything approaching the minor revolution that some might like to see in England's 50-over cricket. Friday's opening day-night engagement of a quick-fire four-match series has arrived in favourable circumstances, with a fragile-looking India losing just their second home one-day international series in 10 years and England presented with an opportunity for another stab at rare subcontinental success.
All the less reason, then, for Giles to give in to the temptation to engage with those grey areas that have tended to dog successive England 50-over regimes. As ever with England perhaps the chief issue-in-waiting is the batting, and more specifically, the top three. And if it seems certain for now Giles will refrain from any immediate swinging change, there is still by necessity a vague sense of auditions being conducted, of change potentially afoot, and of Giles himself facing one or two tricky choices.
This might seem a little counter-intuitive given that as recently as last spring the top three looked like a puzzle that had finally been solved. Prior to The Event (as Kevin Pietersen's bizarre boomerang-retirement must now be described) Alastair Cook, Pietersen and Jonathan Trott were functioning brilliantly at the top of the order. Post-Event, the simplest thing would be to reinstate England's three highest averaging one-day batsmen of all time and let them get on with it. Problem solved for the new coach.
Except, this cannot happen immediately. Trott is not present in India and Pietersen will be missing in New Zealand. The vacant position will for now be filled by the like-for-like right-handed Test class of Ian Bell, who opened in place of Alastair Cook in the warm-up match against England A, scoring 91 at better than a run a ball. Bell for Trott and Bell for KP: this is in all likelihood what will happen in both coming winter series, albeit it is hard at this stage not to yearn for a more decisively interventionist move from the new coach. Giles has an opportunity to take England in a rather more fearless direction here, just as Andy Flower successfully, and almost recklessly, remodelled the Twenty20 team in his first year as coach.
Yet this is unlikely to happen for various reasons. Most obviously England were successful last year favouring solidity: in the English season a top four of Cook, Bell, Trott and Bopara, all of whom scored as required at around 80 runs per hundred balls, was more than enough. Secondly, there is the insurmountable bulwark of Trott, who can only bat at No3, has an absolutely stellar set of 50-over stats, and is unusually close to Giles. Statistically the argument over Trott's inclusion is a non-starter: in outline he remains a 50-over genius, even if the issue over whether he is the right choice is more one of tempo-shift and gear-change, of forcing mistakes from an opposition, and seizing those moments where a ratchet up from the steady into the stellar can take a match away. Trott offers everything but this.
To seek an alternative of less pedigree but greater potential for selfless top-order acceleration would require fearless innovation on Giles's part, something evidence suggests is not his default option. Giles's Warwickshire tended to field an orthodox top three: Bell, Trott and Varun Chopra in their opening CB40 match of last season and Chopra, Darren Maddy and Bell in their losing Lord's final. In Twenty20 Warwickshire were similarly cautious with Laurie Evans, Chopra and William Porterfield an orthodox top three until Rikki Clarke was belatedly promoted to open in the second half of last season.
There is, though, still a possibility things may evolve in the next year. The fact remains that Cook, KP, Trott and Bell as a revolving top three is still unusually safety first. Overseas, and in particular at the next World Cup in Australia and New Zealand – where winning teams in ODIs have tended to score at better than a run a ball in the past two years – more adventure will surely be required.
Then there is the simple fact that new coaches do tend to make changes. This is in the nature of regime change where nuances of atmosphere and hierarchy-rejig can often take surprising form. In his first year as 50-over coach Flower went from a top three of Strauss, Bopara and Pietersen to having Matt Prior at three and Joe Denly opening, to Owais Shah at No3, Trott opening, Luke Wright opening, and finally Craig Kieswetter and blocker-era Cook taking on the new white ball.
Beyond this there is simply the temptation of youthful riches to be drawn on in county cricket. Just as Duncan Fletcher announced his arrival with the promotion of Marcus Trescothick and Vaughan, there must be a temptation for Giles to make a similar statement of intent within the four-yearly cycle of the World Cup. There are two obvious current candidates for the top five. Alex Hales offers beautifully effortless stroke-making at the top of the order and has been a success in Twenty20 internationals, averaging almost 35 at 127 runs per hundred balls, but is still to play an ODI. A top three of Cook, Hales and Pietersen has both class and additional dynamite in its boots. Beyond this it is surely time to pin Jos Buttler's unarguable talent to a settled role. Buttler is the closest England have to a specialist No5 in 50-over cricket. It is here that his record reflects his talent, with an average of just under 60 in List A cricket and a strike-rate of 120 mainly batting at five, from where he has the skills to accumulate or unload.
While others may come and go – and a successful re-entry into international cricket for Ben Stokes must be on Giles's to-do list – there is a well-balanced and progressive batting lineup waiting to be extracted from the occasional muddle of the past two years. Post-Trott, and perhaps by this token post the ICC Champions trophy in England this summer, a top six of Cook, Hales, Pietersen, Morgan, Buttler and Jonny Bairstow might just hit the right balance of new-era de-stodginess and long-form class.
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image: © JJ Hall