Authors: Rio Sports
The tour that seemingly never ends has reached the halfway stage. The travel time from England to Australia has been cut considerably from the two months spent on the seas during the 19th century but that has seemingly lent itself to a more relentless schedule. Sunday’s opener at the MCG begins England’s limited-overs bonanza of two five-match ODI series against Australia and New Zealand which sandwich a Twenty20 tri-series between the sides. All in the space of two months.
Yet this period brings a palpable sense of relief. Even here, where they will watch Australia win at anything, there is a degree of apathy at the manner in which the Ashes were regained. Every local “four-nil” gloat is accompanied by dismay at the absence of a contest. That looks set to be rectified here.
Australia and England sit third and fourth respectively in the ODI rankings. The former are defending 50-over champions; the latter are on a four-year learning curve of white-ball appreciation before next year’s home World Cup. Sunday’s match at the MCG will be the first of 10 ODIs between these two in the next seven months.
Of the England squad on the wrong end of the 4-0 scoreline, only seven are staying on to continue the battle in coloured clothing, including the Test captain, Joe Root. If he had not felt like a piece of himself had been lost when the urn was relinquished, a bout of gastroenteritis has seen to that.
Aside from a delay in announcing the Test squad for New Zealand, Root’s recovery from the illness has not impinged much on preparations. He had handed over captaincy duties to Eoin Morgan. Though there are enough fresh faces to dissipate any residual feelings of disappointment, Morgan may well feel like an Airbnb host returning home to find a couple of toilets blocked and a leak in the roof.
As for Trevor Bayliss, this leg offers some creature comforts. And while he has been put at ease by the backing of the ECB’s chairman, Colin Graves, and chief executive, Tom Harrison – unlike in football, such a vote of confidence is no harbinger of doom – few will be more motivated than Bayliss to ensure England come out of these white-ball duels in credit. After all, it is why he was given the job in the first place.
The Test side under his watch have been inconsistent but big strides have been made in 50-over cricket. Since taking over in May 2015, Bayliss has overseen 34 wins out of 52, with just 15 defeats. In that period, England have put 350 on the board six times, including two scores over 400 and also achieved their highest chase when they overcame a target of 350 set by New Zealand in Bayliss’s first summer. By way of comparison, the 52 ODIs before his appointment brought 21 wins and 29 defeats, with six first-inning scores above 300 and a top score of 316.
The numbers tell two stories: that England have undoubtedly improved and the players, specifically the batsmen, value Bayliss’s output. The freedom the Australian brings is plain to see and can be considered a welcome antidote to an English system that has a track record of suppressing a player’s natural instinct.
But the English public are harder to please. Lauding run and win rates is all well and good but they offer little to appease the discontent bubbling below the surface.
Many domestic fans have been frustrated by the lean towards white-ball cricket and the manner in which the County Championship has been pushed to the far reaches of the domestic calendar to give Twenty20 prime real estate. Reaching the final of the 2016 World T20 and semis of last year’s Champions Trophy are improvements but only a global trophy or success in a marquee series can provide justification that this has all been worthwhile.
The return of the northern powerhouses Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett to England colours addresses the pining for pace that dominated the Ashes. Both provide wicket-taking threats but such is the hysteria of the past few months and the phenomena of a player’s rising stock when he is outside a losing team that neither will be regarded higher than they are at this moment.
Perhaps most intriguing of all will be the fortunes of Alex Hales. An ECB disciplinary commission hearing aside, he has been cleared of wrongdoing after the Bristol incident that sees Ben Stokes remain in international limbo. A decision will be made with purely cricket in mind as to whether he regains the opening spot in Melbourne he lost through suspension for the final two ODIs of last summer.
Having opted to miss the tour to Bangladesh in 2016, the Nottinghamshire opener stands on thin ice yet remains one of England’s leading lights in the 50-over format, as evidenced by his record-breaking 187 not out against Surrey in the final of the Royal London Cup. His 52 from No3 in England’s sole warm-up against a Cricket Australia XI was a reminder of his talents (he was the quickest scorer on show with a strike rate of 148.57).
He more than anyone will need to maintain a low profile and high standards on and off the field. As the Test series showed, that is easier said than done on these shores.
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