WITH every step that they take towards the World Cup this summer, the spotlight is very much on England’s one-day side, who today begin a five-match series against the West Indies.
After the fixtures in Barbados (two), Grenada (two) and St Lucia, there is just one match against Ireland in Dublin on May 3, followed by a five-match series against Pakistan and two World Cup warm-up fixtures against Australia and Afghanistan, before England launch the global tournament against South Africa at The Oval on May 30.
Another 13 games in total, then, to fine-tune and finalise preparations for a competition that England, the world’s No 1-ranked ODI side, will commence as favourites.
The countdown begins in Barbados (3pm UK time) with the West Indies, fresh from a surprise 2-1 victory in the Test series, looking to upset the form book once again ranked, as they are, ninth in the world and way behind Eoin Morgan’s supremely-gifted tourists.
On paper it is a series that England should win despite the presence of such as Chris Gayle, Shimron Hetmyer and Kemar Roach, and it would represent their 10th successive one-day series triumph if they can manage it, a remarkable statistic that highlights how dramatically they have reinvented themselves since their calamitous 2015 World Cup campaign.
England have not so much changed things since then as ripped up the script to become the most dynamic white-ball team around, shaking off the shackles and consistently posting jaw-dropping totals including a world-record 481-6 against Australia at Trent Bridge last year.
It has all been going so well, in fact, that this in itself is perhaps the only reason why England’s supporters might be feeling slightly nervous heading into the summer.
Sod’s Law – the axiom that if something can go wrong, it will – is part and parcel of Britain’s sporting culture; England, after all, were strongly fancied to win the 2017 Champions Trophy only to come a Sod’s Law cropper in the semi-finals.
The World Cup, though, is still some way off and for now the focus is on building momentum towards the tournament and nailing down the few places in the side that remain up for grabs.
While the batting is seemingly set in stone, with a top-six of Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, followed by Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid, there is certainly competition in a pace bowling department that also features the likes of Yorkshire’s David Willey, Liam Plunkett, Mark Wood and Tom Curran.
Tom’s brother Sam will hope to come into contention if he can shine in the forthcoming Indian Premier League, as will the highly-rated Jofra Archer, who qualifies to play for England next month.
Joe Denly, who is on the current tour, has the look of a spare part at present, albeit one with some pretty useful capabilities, while Alex Hales exerts pressure on the strong batting line-up.
Appraising his squad ahead of the World Cup, Morgan said: “I think we’re as close as we can be at the moment. We have to be open-minded in adjustments that need to be made especially in the fast bowling department as fast bowlers get injured and pick up niggles. I’m happy with where we’re at.”
Assessing the challenge building up to the competition he added: “For us it’s 11 one-day games (discounting the World Cup warm-ups) before the first World Cup game at The Oval, so the big thing is to build on what we’ve achieved.
“It doesn’t mean standing still and looking back, it’s actually moving forward and trying to learn as much as we can along with trying to gain results to keep confidence quite high. It’d be very easy to put a couple of series aside and, all of a sudden, start losing and getting into that habit, so we’re very conscious of that.”
All of which makes England’s decision to let assistant coach Paul Farbrace leave so close to the tournament somewhat surprising.
Farbrace is joining Warwickshire as sports director after the Caribbean tour even though the club were prepared to wait until after the World Cup, a big call by the man he will replace at Edgbaston: England’s managing director of cricket, Ashley Giles.