England fly out to Oman with half of World Cup squad already in situ at the IPL
When England were beaten by West Indies in the final of the 2016 World T20, Eoin Morgan was the only player in their side who had made an appearance in the IPL. Five years later, the squad members departing the UK for the World Cup will hardly fill two rows on the plane between them, with eight of the 15 already in the UAE with their respective franchises.
It is a measure of the ECB’s shift in attitude towards the tournament in the last half-decade, a U-turn which would make any government wince. Four of the seven squad members flying out on Monday night (Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Dawid Malan and Chris Woakes) withdrew from their IPL deals ahead of a gruelling winter and the other three (Tymal Mills, David Willey and Mark Wood) have all played in it previously; James Vince and Liam Dawson, both travelling reserves, are the only exceptions. If England go one better than they did five years ago, their involvement in the world’s premier domestic competition will be justifiably be hailed as a major factor.
That is not to say that things have been going smoothly for England’s players in the desert. Sam Billings and Chris Jordan are yet to get on the pitch, Sam Curran has been in and out of Chennai Super Kings’ side, Liam Livingstone and Adil Rashid have both been dropped and Eoin Morgan is clinging onto his role as Kolkata Knight Riders captain after a lean run with the bat. Even Moeen Ali and Jason Roy, the two guaranteed starters, have not found things easy. England’s ultra-positive batting has served them well on flat pitches around the world in recent years but their players’ struggles raise the question as to whether it will be sustainable if surfaces are slow and tired.
Mills, returning to the squad after an absence of four-and-a-half years on the back of his performances for Sussex and Southern Brave this summer, has been a keen observer from afar – when childcare duties have allowed, at least. He revealed to ESPNcricinfo last month that “four or five teams” had been interested in signing him as a replacement for the UAE leg, but he had not registered for the auction earlier this year due to a stress fracture which forced him to wear a back brace for three months over the winter, rendering him ineligibile.
“One of our advantages is that we’ve got half the squad playing in the IPL at the moment,” Mills said on Monday, shortly before flying to Oman for a short, soft quarantine and training camp which precedes the whole squad’s arrival in Dubai next Saturday. “I’m sure we’ll come out of that with a bunch of information, and the analyst [Nathan Leamon] is out there with KKR. We’ll be well-prepped and well-versed by the time we get together.
“I’m sure we’ll be full of confidence and back ourselves to beat any team. The pitches look like they’ve been quite sluggish, particularly in the day games. It looks like they’re trying – particularly in Dubai – to keep the pitches with quite a bit of grass on to keep them fresh by the time the World Cup starts. We’ve got a very strong, very adaptable squad and most of the guys have played a lot of cricket in that area, whether it’s IPL, PSL or internationally.”
The continued uncertainty over this winter’s Ashes means that some squad members – Bairstow, Buttler, Malan, Woakes and Wood among them – and support staff are in the dark as to whether they will be away for six weeks or three-and-a-half months when they leave on Monday evening, while the enlarged squad for the Australia tour is likely to be selected from Oman via Zoom if the ECB board gives the green light later this week. In unprecedented circumstances, England’s players will cling to any sense of familiarity they can garner from the Emirates.
Mills himself is no different: he has bowled more T20 overs in Dubai than any other ground in the world barring Hove, and became accustomed to Sharjah’s short boundaries during an improbable stint at Kandahar Knights in the Afghanistan Premier League in late 2018. Coincidentally, it was in Dubai last winter, during the gladiator-style “Ultimate Kricket Challenge”, that Morgan told Mills his name still came up in England selection meetings; less than 12 months later, he is back amongst it.
“I’ve played in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai a lot, so they’re three grounds I’m comfortable with,” he said. “It’s nice to be going to places that I know and grounds I have a decent record at but ultimately previous records don’t really mean an awful lot. This will be the highest level of competition I’ve played at, playing against international teams in every game and some of the best players in the world. I’m looking forward to seeing how I go against them, if I get a go.
“I’m a big believer in playing to your strengths. I’m going to get out there and do what I’ve been doing for the last few years, trying to be smart about it. You make tweaks here and there and if there’s something blatantly obvious I need to alter with regards to ground dimensions or a particular batter, I’ll do that, but I’m going to come hard in the Powerplay and then mix it up throughout the middle and end. We’ll see where we get to.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98