A Twenty20 series that promises to be more competitive than the Tests begins in Ahmedabad on Friday with the two captains in disagreement. Eoin Morgan says India are favourites to win the World Cup they host later this year, while Virat Kohli believes this tag belongs to England.
These conflicting views were essentially just a bit of pre-match pantomime but five games in the giant Narendra Modi stadium – tipped to welcome bumper crowds – will certainly go a long way to helping both sides shape plans, personnel, match-ups and tactics before the main event in October.
This is not to say there is not expectation. India deal with it every time they step on to the field, while England are under a wee bit of pressure to put on a show – for the sake of the selectors if no one else – given the rotation system, much chuntered about after the 3-1 Test defeat, was devised with this series at its apex.
While they have risen to No 1 in the rankings, it is not often Morgan has all the multi-format stars at his disposal. This was the case before Christmas when they brushed South Africa aside 3-0, however, and it would be a surprise if England veered away from the top six then which had Jason Roy and Jos Buttler open, before Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and the captain following behind.
There are subplots here. Roy is in need of runs after a lean time since his flashing blade ignited England’s 50-over World Cup campaign in 2019 and is likely to be challenged by spin early, while Malan, already the subject of a “how can India stop him?” headline in the local press after rising to the top of the format’s batting rankings, plays his first international cricket on the subcontinent.
But chiefly England’s selection decisions appear to be between two all-rounders in Moeen Ali and Sam Curran at No 7 and, unless both play, the fourth bowler alongside Adil Rashid, Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer. England sometimes struggle with economy and wickets in the powerplay, something Morgan says has been masked by the batting unit’s ability to either build or chase big totals.
Tom Curran, Mark Wood and Reece Topley are the options in India and the good news is that Archer is fit after an elbow injury curtailed his Test series. He is also seemingly smarting from a suggestion that he is not motivated by all three formats but Morgan has no problems from a white-ball perspective (bar perhaps the fact his 90mph spearhead is limited to only four overs in Twenty20 cricket).
“Jofra is a huge asset,” said Morgan. “He is a guy who can bowl in three parts of the game and be threatening when he comes on. He obviously has express pace, can bowl cutters, variations and has a very good yorker.”
Morgan similarly waxed lyrical about Moeen, describing the all-rounder’s experience as “worth its weight in gold”, and his spin bowling could be important if the England captain gets pitches he hopes will further the education of his batsmen. Rashid, a rare England player without an Indian Premier League deal and hoping to gain more experience of the conditions, will hope this is the case also.
India, meanwhile, are aiming to forge their Twenty20 identity, despite a recent series victory in Australia and sitting second in the rankings. Kohli, just shy of 3,000 runs in the format, wants more power in the batting and not least since Jasprit Bumrah, peerless when it comes to defence with the ball, is absent because of a clash with his wedding.
Kohli said: “We want to be a side that plays free cricket, and not have any baggage from lack of depth with one guy having to bat long enough to make sure we get to a big total. We have explosive batsmen in the team now, who can change the game at any stage, even if we’re two or three wickets down.”
After a formidable top three of KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Kohli, potential for fireworks lower down comes from Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya. The former had a quiet IPL last year but was superb during the recent Tests, while the latter is being spoken about as a rival to Kieron Pollard of West Indies as a gamechanging hitter.
Thereafter it is down to which combination of bowlers can best make up for the loss of Bumrah. Five games on the same square should bring spinners into the equation and though Ravichandran Ashwin is not a feature of this squad – summing up India’s depth – Axar Patel is an option if Kohli wants to prey on scars from the Test series.
All told, both sides are impressive but with areas still to fully nail down before the World Cup comes into view. Over the course of the next nine days we may move closer to deciding which captain to agree with as regards the title of favourites.