The quality of limited overs players in English cricket has never been stronger. That has been obvious from this last week. First, a near third-string team beat Pakistan 3-0 in the ODI series, and then on Friday evening, Liam Livingstone, still finding his way in international cricket, scored the fastest ever T20I hundred for England. Other countries have terrific white-ball depth too – India and West Indies in particular – but England’s has claim to be the best in the world.
On the evidence of his innings at Trent Bridge, it is going to be very hard for England to leave Livingstone out of their first-choice team. Improving the middle order is an area that Eoin Morgan has been focused on for at least a year and despite not having done the role very often in domestic or franchise cricket, Livingstone appears to have the skill-set to thrive there. He has huge power, able to clear the boundary off seam and spin, and is a fast starter. He hit his fourth, fifth and sixth deliveries for six, four, six on Friday.
“It’s very hard not to pick a guy if he’s played like that,” England’s caretaker head coach Paul Collingwood said. “I think that innings is as exciting an innings as we’ve seen in an English shirt as we’ve seen for some time. The way he went about the innings, how clean he hit the ball right from the start was incredible to watch in person. It’s exciting to think how powerful that batting unit could be with someone like him in it.
“What he gives as an overall package is very exciting. It’s not just his power-hitting, it’s also what he gives with the ball. He’s very much a modern T20 cricketer. He can bowl legspin and offspin depending on whether he’s bowling against right or left-handed batsmen, and he’s an exceptional fielder so as an overall package.”
The dilemma for England – and it is one of those dilemmas that sportsmen and women always say is a good one to have – is how to fit all their batsmen into their side. Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan are certainties. Dawid Malan is the number one ranked T20I batsman in the world. Ben Stokes is Ben Stokes. Moeen Ali has had a tough year in an England shirt but remains one of the best T20 batsmen in the country. Now there is Livingstone.
“That batting line-up is a scary batting line-up,” Collingwood said. “Oppositions are going to look at it and think it’s going to be difficult to bowl at. When you’ve got Stokesy coming back in and Jos at the top of the order, it can be scary. The more players you can have like that… that you can draw upon if you’ve got injuries or a little bit of loss of form, whatever it may be, the better. If we’ve got all those guys firing like they can, it’s going to be a very strong, powerful batting unit.”
Collingwood is right but it’s eight batsmen for, probably, seven spaces. Of the certainties, Morgan will bat in the middle order, probably at five, while Bairstow will most likely bat at four, the position Morgan has earmarked him for because of his ability to start fast against spin. Roy and Buttler will open at the World Cup barring injury. That leaves numbers three, six and seven to fill.
Given the World Cup is going to be played in Oman and the UAE, Moeen and Livingstone’s ability to bowl spin gives them an advantage and could mean they occupy numbers six and seven. But then Stokes played the finisher role in the series in India earlier this year, a job Morgan believes he can flourish in despite Rajasthan Royals using him at the top of the order during the IPL and mixed results in an England shirt so far. If he plays there, one of Livingstone and Moeen will have to drop out too, reducing Morgan’s spin options.
Stokes is arguably more suited to number three where he would have slightly more time to get himself in but Malan averages more than 50 there. Leaving him out would be incredibly harsh, unless his form drops off significantly between now and the World Cup. Even so, the next two games of this series, including Sunday’s second match at Headingley, still feel important for Malan. It shows how strong England currently are. As crazy as it seems with his record, Malan could do with a score to reassert his credentials.
After all, it would be unthinkable for England not to play Stokes in the World Cup. His influence on the team as a leader was never more obvious than in how his makeshift ODI squad responded to his captaincy in the series against Pakistan. He is such a fine player that he could do a good job at number three and would no doubt do a good job at number six too if given a run of games, although perhaps not as good as Livingstone or Moeen could. He also offers a bowling option as well, which Malan does not.
So, Stokes could bat three although Malan has done terrifically there and England haven’t shown any indication of considering Stokes in that position. While if he bats at six, Livingstone and Moeen are arguably both better in that role and one of them would have to miss out on pitches where spin is going to be essential. It is an unusual position for Stokes to find himself in. Usually one of the first names on the teamsheet, he is at risk of being shoehorned into the middle order when there are potentially better options.
Whatever permutation England use in that tournament, they will pose a strong challenge of course. With injuries or COVID liable to strike, the depth they have in white-ball cricket is vital. Livingstone’s breakthrough innings on Friday evening has added yet another high-quality option for Morgan to factor into his plans. The difficulty for the captain is fitting all these players in. But Ben Stokes is so good that he will surely be made room for in England’s first-choice team. They just can’t leave him out. Can they?