Homework isn’t supposed to be this much fun. England’s white-ball tour of South Africa had been billed as preparation, refinement, revision for the T20 World Cup in Australia. In the event it split neatly into two halves.
The second of these was an adrenal three-stage drag race along the coast and back to the Highveld, and a series that suggested while England may or may not be the best Twenty20 team in the world they are surely the most entertaining, flaws and all.
South Africa provided a wonderful staging. There were boisterous full houses. Cricket of various types filled out the TV channels and daily newspapers. Even in the glow of his match-winning knock on Sunday night Eoin Morgan took a moment to step outside the bubble and praise the warmth and youth of the host nation. The crowd at Buffalo Park, gleefully mixed as night fell over the grassy banks, was perhaps the enduring image of the tour.
Around the same time rumours began to circulate, later confirmed, that Faf du Plessis has stepped down as South Africa’s Test and T20 captain. Du Plessis has been a fine servant, captain of his country in 112 games. But sport moves on and South African cricket will hope to evolve from here in all manner of ways.
Before that the 50-over matches had coalesced into one slightly soggy entity. This was an one-day international series fulfilled as an obligation to the listings. Given the demands of all-format cricket, there was never going to be any sense of a victory lap.
That team have now gone, or been mothballed. It might have felt a little odd for the home spectators, there to watch Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, but finding instead Sam Curran bringing the new-ball fire, Matt Parkinson and Joe Denly sending down some floaty twirlers. Look on our magnificence. For we are the champions.
Lessons are in short supply. Saqib Mahmood bowled the most significant spell of the ODI series for England, five overs in Johannesburg that suggest he has the fire, skill and athleticism to develop as an international bowler. Parkinson needs to do a lot of bowling wherever he can, and also improve his fielding. Tom Banton looked entirely at ease at the Wanderers right up until the moment he got out just when he shouldn’t have.
Ignition came in East London with the start of the T20 internationals. Suddenly there was significance to every turn as England seek to finesse their strongest 11. The evidence suggests there are only two spots left to fill.
In Jofra Archer’s absence they lack an effective opening Powerplay bowler. England have gone for a lot of runs in that period over the past two years. So it proved to be in South Africa as Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma sparkled as an opening pair.
Mark Wood had talked down his own credentials as a T20 bowler before the series – and he was as good as his word, going for 118 for four in his 10 overs. Chris Jordan showed he is a fine death bowler, but less effective at the start. Tom Curran is England’s most skilful purveyor of variations, and held his nerve very well in Durban. But he can also find himself plonked into the stratosphere when he gets that skiddy length wrong. Win or lose in Australia, it’s going to be a ride.
Happily Archer’s return in place of Wood should fill that hole with a high-class specialist. The spinners are also “a lock”. Adil Rashid, still only 31 and apparently free of shoulder-knack, bowled with wonderful craft. Moeen Ali was reliable enough and batted with pyrotechnic grace.
The second question to be settled is the identity of the final member of England’s top six. Had Dawid Malan been given three matches ahead of the Team England comfort blanket that is Denly he might have advanced his own case to be more than a reserve.
There is an obvious move here. Tom Banton is a rare talent in T20 cricket. He’s ready to go. His introduction to this team would, though, highlight the one slightly wonky cog in that order. England are convinced Buttler should open. But an edgy 50 on a concrete road on the Highveld is clinching evidence of his undoubted talent as much as any suitability to face the new ball, which was called into question by 78 runs there in his previous four innings.
If England’s T20 top six is divided into two blocks, starters and finishers, which side of this divide should Buttler realistically be on? Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Banton are the obvious bangers at the start. Morgan, Buttler and Stokes is an awesome-looking finishing block. This is England’s best batting lineup.
It isn’t the one they’ll go with, though. England under Morgan have a habit of being stubborn over these things – and of being proved right, too. It is part of England’s tight team culture, the net gain from absolute certainty in their own methods.
The logic of trying out some talented outsiders – Alex Hales as a batting option, David Willey as an effective Powerplay bowler – bumps up against this sense of a team that defines itself against the rest of the world. It can seem prissy, hostile to those who don’t fit, and tiresomely moralising in Hales’s case. But this is also England’s way of winning.
A final conclusion from this white-ball tour: the Morgan supremacy continues. England’s captain has a natural authority. Success has given him a kind of power-halo, so much so that right now Morgan is the single most important person on the playing side of English cricket. Fully committed to the job, and with a sublime finisher’s innings behind him in Johannesburg, his authority is emphatically secure.