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A look backwards and forwards at the shortest season

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England’s Gains and Losses

Against all the odds the five-match series between England and the West Indies was completed. Our thanks go to the ground authorities and staff, the players, officials and the media folk who brought a wet game to memorable life. Above all to the West Indian party. They have had to withstand unparalleled restrictions on their movements for many weeks, and survive the worst an English autumn can throw at them.

So England did complete a clean sweep. That was less than surprising, considering the gap in ranking places and the cold the visitors had to withstand. The brief finale brought them close to a first victory, but it was not to be.

Circumstances at last brought two changes to the England line-up. Sadly Danni Wyatt had to leave the bubble for personal reasons. Our best wishes go with her. Her replacement, Fran Wilson, paid the usual price in a smash-and-grab show like this – she faced one ball.

The other change was not forced upon Lisa Keightley; she brought in Freya Davies for Anya Shrubsole. Davies enjoyed slightly more exposure than Wilson, Heather Knight inviting her to take the first of the five overs. She bowled well, accounting for Hayley Matthews caught by Mady Villiers.

So that makes a total of thirteen players to get on to the field. You have to feel sorry the others, condemned to sit out and watch.

Where does the series leave England’s campaign?

You could say Keightley was wise in taking a cautious approach to the one international series found possible. Her choices were entirely predictable; thirteen of the sixteen players took the field in five matches.

Can we put the lack of innovation entirely down to the pandemic? Would new faces have been added if the ECB’s new structures been allowed to take wing? Or, to put it the other way round, would established players have been omitted in the name of progress? The need to create a bubble certainly didn’t help flexibility. With a proposed visit to New Zealand possible in February, Keightley’s team-building has hardly begun.

The Principal Parts of an England Squad

Spinners

Of the several elements needed to create a successful eleven, slow bowling is the best covered. Three 21-year-olds, Sophie Ecclestone, Sarah Glenn and Mady Villiers, might be operating together in ten years time. Given the nature of T20 games, it was inevitable that Villiers couldn’t play a major role, but all three show immense promise. Several other spinners showed well in the Heyhoe Flint, and the skipper can always lend a hand.

Quicks

The fast bowling department has hardly developed. For four matches Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole held the fort alone. Heather Knight had to turn to Nat Sciver for her third pace bowler. Davies’ contribution at the very end was a single over.

Neither of the alternatives in the group, Kate Cross and Katie George, took part. That is hard to understand unless they were injured. The next likeliest pair, Issy Wong and Lauren Bell, are much younger and were spared the challenge of a sudden rise to international cricket. Outside the bubble Beth Langston regained the form that brought her to prominence a few years ago.

Batters

The batting line-up remains an enigma. T20 cricket is a poor measuring-stick of batting worth; players are required to take risks from the start. That runs counter to every coaching manual on batting ever written. But in the three formats available, test, ODI and T20, England’s chosen few have only rarely performed together in the same innings. In this T20 series every team member was capable of scoring runs; the tail proved far more fruitful than their opponents. But only Dunkley has been added to names that have been around since 2013. Not very Australian.

New faces have shown up in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint tournament. Keightley might turn to the more experienced among them, for example, Georgia Adams and Sophie Luff, or to a younger crop, in the form of players like Ella McCaughan, Sarah Bryce (assuming she is willing to wear England colours) or Georgia Hennessy (an all-rounder).

Unlike the men’s game, this isn’t a case of horses for courses. There aren’t enough matches in each format (above all tests!) to make specialisation sensible. England’s women batters adapt to each form of the game in turn. But unless new names are added very soon, the day will dawn when retirements bring awkward decisions.

Wicket-keeper

The wicket-keeping stakes were limited to a single player, Amy Jones. The recent series revealed her one weakness, the skied catch. Commentators sought excuses: sighting a ball in the night sky from under a helmet. Does a keeper get any practice in those special conditions? For the rest she has shown herself as a worthy successor to the mistress of the art, Sarah Taylor. The limitations of the series meant there was no chance to introduce a replacement. It’s a conundrum as old as the hills: do you pick the most skilful keeper, or the most skilful keeper who will lob in a hundred with the bat as well?

Jones is good enough to open the innings, indeed she might well be restored there given current fallibilities. But who could offer similar qualities as back-up ? Thanks to the introduction of the eight hubs, the choice has has narrowed to this octet:

Abbey Freeborn (L) 23; top order for Lightning; scored well
Amara Carr (SUN) 26; 99 v SE Stars, all other scores in single figures
Bess Heath (ND) 19; best score 23 at No 8
Carla Rudd (SV) 26; from Sussex, career path blocked by Sarah Taylor; very capable
Ellie Threlkeld 21; (THUNDER) a headline like ‘the heir apparent to Sarah Taylor’ is enough to blight any cricketer’s career. Think of all the young Australians labelled ‘the next Don Bradman’; but she is highly promising
Gwenan Davies (CS) 26; Wales – has opened the batting
Natasha Wraith (WS) 18; 68 v Vipers
Rhianna Southby (SE) 19; best score 10* at No 9

The only solution is for the specialist keeper-coaches to observe and assess. They will distinguish the outstanding keepers from the very good ones. Then the head coach decides whether the top choice has the batting credentials – and we’re back where we started.

Captaincy

No problems there. Even when Heather Knight has to leave the field, Nat Sciver can take over with a world of experience behind her – and around her with the rest of the squad. Knight shares the same calm demeanour as her counterpart Eoin Morgan, and occupies the extra-cover position with the same accuracy.

The Way ahead

There is no immediate prospect of an end to the pandemic, so forward planning has to have question-marks attached. The New Zealand tour in February and March looks perfectly possible at the moment. That will be a good examination for the team and for their new head coach. She will have to decide whether to include any of the players who performed so well in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy. It was designed as a breeding ground for future international players. The White Ferns lacked the last ounce of depth on the last tour here; at home they will be the stern test the English urgently need. And they were good enough to beat the Australians in Brisbane in the latest of their T20 series.

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