Off-field issues cramp West Indies' style with series up for grabs

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Off-field issues cramp West Indies' style with series up for grabs
© Getty Images Moeen Ali will go up against Kieron Pollard again after Eoin Morgan was ruled out © Getty Images

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Coming into this five-match series, Eoin Morgan had said that the “development of our game is more important than a series win” … and that caveat may be one that England are keen to cling onto as the climax of the campaign approaches.

With a glut of Ashes campaigners already absent for this tour, England’s resources in Barbados have been further hit by illness and injury – the latest being a quadriceps niggle that has forced Morgan himself onto the sidelines. As for the action itself, the understudies on parade have frequently been put through their paces, most emphatically on Wednesday, when West Indies surged back into the series lead on the back of Rovman Powell‘s 51-ball century.

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And so England go into this weekend’s back-to-back fixtures needing consecutive victories to swipe the spoils. As recently as November, you’d have backed them to do just that, after West Indies old guard were put out to pasture in a humiliating 55-all-out display at the T20 World Cup. But Powell’s pyrotechnics, coupled with Nicholas Pooran’s power at No. 3 and an enviable depth of hitters that came to the fore in West Indies’ one-run loss on Sunday, suggests that the mood of the hosts may have shifted a touch this past week.

Nevertheless, as DJ Bravo noted in an exasperated tweet on Thursday, it’s never easy to rally round West Indies these days without a few political spanners impeding on the works. A curious row about Odean Smith’s “victimisation” has blown up since he was dropped to make way from Powell’s power-packed return, with Phil Simmons, the head coach, being forced to decry such talk as “foolishness” in his pre-match press conference before Ricky Skerritt, the board chairman, weighed in too.

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The off-field issues have detracted from a genuinely uplifting series of displays from West Indies – a team that lost an ODI series to Ireland only last week, but which has hit upon a potent balance of youth and experience for England’s visit. In particular, some canny bowling from the veterans Jason Holder and Kieron Pollard has offered a steady foil to a batting line-up that is still prone to over-reaching, but which looks better balanced than it had been at the World Cup.

As for England, they’ve had their moments in between the ignominies. Tom Banton and Phil Salt served up a pair of powerful fifties on Wednesday that fitted the imposing template that England’s absentee World Cup winners have crafted for the white-ball team since 2015, while the spin-twins Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid remain a pre-eminent force as the countdown continues to another T20 World Cup in Australia in barely 10 months’ time.

But on the seam-bowling front, there’s obvious room for improvement, particularly at the death, where England’s recent stats make eye-watering reading. Reece Topley has been a notable exception to the theme – his lanky left-arm line and canny variations have confirmed the promise he showed when called up for the 2016 World T20 in India. But Chris Jordan and Saqib Mahmood, at opposite ends of the experience spectrum, have both endured some rough treatment in this series, as have Tymal Mills and the debutant George Garton.

As Morgan admitted, it’s better for England’s development to be put under pressure in this build-up period than to experience such setbacks on the main stage in November. But as Moeen prepares to lead England out for these final two games, there are perhaps a few more unknown factors in his ranks that the management would have bargained for at the start of the tour.

Form guide

West Indies WLWLL (most recent first)

England LWLLL

In the spotlight

Consistency has been one of West Indies’ watchwords for this series, and so all eyes will be on Rovman Powell after his startling return to the fray on Wednesday. Expecting him to back up his 51-ball hundred with a similar performance this weekend might be a stretch, but given that West Indies’ top-order collapsed to 65 for 7 in the second match after a serene display in game one, how he resets after that effort could be a microcosm of the team’s mentality at large. Either way, he’s made a phenomenal mark as one of only three West Indies batters to record a men’s T20I century, alongside Chris Gayle and Evin Lewis. It’s illustrious company, and after six years on the team’s periphery, it gives him a golden opportunity to cement that place as his own.

It’s been a good problem for England to have down the years, but such has been their glut of explosive white-ball hitters, almost everyone in the line-up has been queuing up for a place in the top three. Phil Salt is a potential exception to that rule, after making his debut at No. 6 on Wednesday, and responding to the challenge with a fine innings of 57 from 24 balls. He prides himself on his ability to strike the ball hard from the get-go, and with Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow among the dead-certs missing this campaign, there’s a more obvious long-term vacancy in the middle-order. Morgan’s absence should guarantee he’ll get the next two games to make his mark.

Team news

There are few reasons for West Indies to make wholesale changes to a line-up that performed so impressively in the third T20I, although one tweak may come at the top of the order, where Shai Hope’s haul of 26 runs from 40 balls shows room for improvement. He may make way for Kyle Mayers, which would also give West Indies a left-right opening alliance. Nicholas Pooran would take over as wicketkeeper in that case. The Odean Smith controversy probably means he’s further from a recall now than he might have been had that issue not become headline news, especially in light of Powell’s blistering reintroduction. But it’s feasible that he might also come in at the expense of Darren Bravo.

West Indies (possible): 1 Shai Hope / Kyle Mayers, 2 Brandon King, 3 Nicholas Pooran, 4 Darren Bravo, 5 Rovman Powell, 6 Kieron Pollard (capt), 7 Jason Holder, 8 Fabian Allen, 9 Romario Shepherd, 10 Akeal Hosein, 11 Sheldon Cottrell

There were so many changes to England’s line-up for the third game that Moeen Ali, the stand-in captain, failed to remember them all – but then, seeing as one of them was the ever-overlooked Liam Dawson (now back on the sidelines after a solitary T20I appearance in four years), perhaps that’s understandable. In theory, there should be fewer changes this time around – assuming Liam Livingstone doesn’t suffer a recurrence of his acid reflux issue, he will be a lock in the middle-order, where Sam Billings may yet rejoin him if he’s got over his understandable jet-lag. Harry Brook, a late inclusion after Eoin Morgan’s quad strain, is the obvious man to make way. Assuming Reece Topley’s fitness holds up, he’s the first-choice quick on the team-sheet. Saqib Mahmood, taken out of the firing line on Wednesday, may be ripe for a return.

England (possible): 1 Jason Roy, 2 Tom Banton, 3 James Vince, 4 Moeen Ali (capt), 5 Liam Livingstone, 6 Sam Billings (wk), 7 Phil Salt, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Saqib Mahmood / Tymal Mills, 11 Reece Topley

Pitch and conditions

There have been a variety of surfaces for this series so far – a bit of a flyer that caught England on the hop in game one, a lop-sided lay-out for Sunday’s second match which played havoc with the quick bowlers’ tactics in particular, then a surprise belter on Wednesday, which served up a total of 428 runs across 40 overs.

Stats and trivia

  • Kieron Powell needs 22 runs to reach 1500 in his T20I career. This will be his 97th match in the format.
  • Nicholas Pooran needs 34 runs to pass 1000 T20I runs. He will be playing in his 53rd match.
  • The 428 runs scored in the third match was the third-highest aggregate in a 20-over match involving West Indies. They took part in the highest-scoring T20I ever, a one-run win over India in Lauderhill in 2016, when 487 runs were scored.

Quotes

“If Odean wasn’t in the best team for the day, it is because we thought that Rovman was better suited for yesterday. All those who want to sit out there and preach about victimisation, I think they need to look within themselves.”

West Indies head coach, Phil Simmons, is unimpressed with rumours of a rift in his camp.

“They’re such good strikers of the cricket ball. I remember I was keeping last night and just seeing how far they hit it, it was pretty scary to be honest.”

Tom Banton was an impressed onlooker during West Indies’ batting display on Wednesday.

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