When Eoin Morgan described Saturday’s match against Australia as “probably one of our most difficult games in this group stage” it sounded very much like damnation with faint praise. England have after all turned their first two outings of the Twenty20 World Cup into such gentle processions that future opponents would have to be pretty lamentable not to clear that hurdle.
But in Australia they come up against a side that like them has won their first two matches, and one that impressed in all areas of the game against Sri Lanka on Thursday evening. The sides share several characteristics: a stocky, ball-flaying opener who got 60-odd in his last outing in England’s Jason Roy and Australia’s David Warner; a leg-spinner who can make a difference in the middle overs in Adil Rashid and Adam Zampa; a desire, as Australia’s Pat Cummins put it, “to take the game on”; and the clear preference – shared by many at this tournament – to bat second.
So far neither has been required to do anything else: Aaron Finch has won both tosses, while Morgan lost one only for Bangladesh to conveniently ask them to bowl. In a game likely to be decided around the margins, unless there is a significant late injury the identity of the team that takes the field as favourites will probably be decided on the toss of a coin.
“There’s always an advantage in chasing, statistically, regardless of the country you’re playing in,” Morgan said. “Traditionally day games, you win the toss and bat first, set a total, [then] the sun bakes the wicket, the wicket changes. But we haven’t seen that either. So I don’t know if it’s the standard that’s being played or if it’s more of an advantage than it normally is.”
Before the tournament dew was predicted to massively disadvantage sides fielding second in evening fixtures. Instead it has yet to make a significant impact – “We’ve only played one night game so far and there was actually no dew for the entire evening,” Morgan said – but the disadvantage has been there all the same.
Before Friday’s two matches the team batting second had won 16 out of 22 games at this World Cup, and nine out of 10 since the start of the Super 12s. Despite Morgan’s confident assertion of the general benefit of batting second, however, the case is not normally so clear: at the last World Cup in 2016, for example, the team batting second lost 18 times and won only 15, while across 771 completed T20 internationals in the last five years the chasers have won a very marginal 50.6%.
Once the game begins the success or otherwise of the teams’ fifth bowler will be crucial, with both sides so far picking only four specialists in batting-heavy lineups. While England have used Moeen Ali and Liam Livingstone with great success – between them they have bowled 10 overs at five apiece and taken six wickets – Australia’s Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis have bowled eight overs at 9.4 apiece (against Sri Lanka, played like Saturday’s match at nighttime in Dubai, their four overs cost 51) and taken one wicket.
Morgan is not enthusiastic about the idea of picking on specific bowlers. “If you go in with a preemptive view on targeting one person, it normally doesn’t allow you to take in information during the game and have people [reacting to] reality as opposed to just a preconceived idea,” he said, but clearly the team whose non-specialist bowlers thrive will be at an advantage.
There is another similarity between the nations: both have a particular high-stakes Test series to look forward to in the next couple of months. “It’s always huge,” Pat Cummins said of playing England. “Yeah, huge game. We know these guys really well. We know it’s such a big game in the context of making the semi-finals and, yeah, we always enjoy coming up against England. There are a few players that will be coming out this summer from this side, so it would be great to get one on the board against them early.”
But when Morgan was asked if this weekend’s game could perhaps be seen as the opening skirmish in a months-long battle for multiformat cricketing supremacy and that as such defeat might play on some players’ minds as they approach the Ashes, he completely dismissed he idea.
“I’ve played Test matches and 50-over and T20 for a long period of time,” he said. “There was a time and a place where 50-over cricket was closely aligned with Test cricket and the way that it was played, particularly top of the order and how your quicks bowl. But I think white-ball cricket has moved so far away from red-ball cricket that there’s just … it’s night and day, between a psychological blow in one format in comparison to the other.”
So far England have spoken a lot about how they pick their teams according to the identity of their opponents and the conditions on the ground, but then picked identical XIs to face West Indies at night in Dubai and Bangladesh in the daytime in Abu Dhabi. Selection dilemmas have been simplified by the fact that Mark Wood has been ruled out of both matches with an ankle injury and Tom Curran missed the Bangladesh game with a knee complaint.
Wood, in particular, has the potential to thrive against Australia but Morgan’s update on those players’ condition as of Friday afternoon – “They’re progressing very well. I suppose from where they were they’ve come a long way” – suggested in a rather opaque manner that neither is likely to play on Saturday either. England can only hope that the outcome remains as consistent as their team selection.