England vs India – 1st T20I

Ben Stokes and his team of self-described “rockstars” have played to sold-out stadiums across the country over the last month, winning all four Tests against New Zealand and India to send the sporting public into a wave of Bazball-mania. Test cricket, in its new, ultra-attacking form, is back in the public consciousness.
But the McCullum tour bus is back in the garage for the foreseeable future, as white-ball cricket dominates the next six weeks of the England men’s schedule. On Thursday, Jos Buttler’s tenure as captain begins with the first of a dozen fixtures in the next 25 days, the first of three T20 internationals against India at the Ageas Bowl.

Three ODIs against the same opposition follow next week and the schedule does not get easier from there: there is a single day between the third ODI against India and the first of three against South Africa, with another three T20Is before the end of the month. England’s white-ball players then go straight into the Hundred from August 3, then have two weeks off before touring Pakistan and Australia immediately before October’s T20 World Cup.

As such, Buttler’s challenge is to strike a balance over the next six weeks: he needs to keep his players fit and fresh so that they can peak in the knockout stages of the World Cup, but also has a responsibility to keep the game’s many casual fans engaged during the Test team’s hiatus. Not that they struggled during the previous break: in the gap between the second and third New Zealand Tests, they racked up a world-record 498 for 4 against the Netherlands in Amstelveen.

“Soaking it up around the country, you can hear the excitement in the way people are talking about the Test team and the style of cricket they’re playing,” Buttler said on Wednesday. “We’ve seen sell-outs on the last day of the Test and brilliant games going all five days; it’s really Test cricket at its best. Players, especially, and the sporting public are really loving that.”

Buttler has repeatedly poured cold water on the idea of a Test recall and did so again on Wednesday. “There’s not many spaces available in that team, are there? Being made captain of this team in T20s and ODIs needs full focus and a lot of energy; that’s where all my focus is at the minute.

“There’s a clear identity for that team now, which is the way they’re going to play. I think we’ve had that for a long time: we’re always trying to push the boundaries and luckily, we’ll get to bring a few of those guys into our group as well, who’ve been in fantastic form, and playing in that fashion suits us down to the ground as well.”

Three members of the Test side (Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and Ben Stokes) will return to the white-ball set-up for next week’s ODIs but have been rested this week, meaning there will be opportunities for some fringe players in the T20I series. Harry Brook and Phil Salt are competing for the finisher’s spot in the middle order, while Moeen Ali and Sam Curran could be used as floating hitters against India’s spinners.

“There’s never really been much of a structured order in a lot of the teams I’ve played in now over the last two or three years,” Buttler said. “It’s trying to be quite dependent on what the game needs and trying to match people up best against the opposition. It’s about looking at ways you can get more out of people or be more forward-thinking in terms of T20 cricket… there’s so much strength, we need to try and get the most out of it.”

Death bowling has been a problem area for England, but Buttler suggested that the best solution was to take early wickets. “It’s a pretty thankless task at the moment in white-ball cricket,” he said. “It’s how you manage that: do you try and actually be more aggressive at the start to try and take more wickets, so you’re not bowling at set batsmen at the death?

“[You might] try and be as aggressive as you can with the new ball because if you can set a team back at the start, that will really help. It’s about managing expectations of what is successful sometimes. It might not look good in terms of how numbers have always looked in cricket, but actually if you get 2 for 45 that might actually be worth more than 0 for 30.”

This will be Buttler’s first T20I since last year’s World Cup semi-final, when England came up short against New Zealand after posting 166 for 4, a score which proved slightly below par. It was only the fifth time they had batted first in 17 games, but Buttler said that his focus this summer would be on results rather than practising defending scores for the sake of it.

“I don’t think that we desperately need to bat first on every occasion we get a chance to, just to expose ourselves to that,” he said. “I don’t want us to get to a situation where we devalue games and think that they’re all just practice matches, like, ‘let’s do this because it might happen in six or 12 months’ time’. I want us to have an eye on the future but still try to win games of cricket at the time being as well.”

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