Warmup matches are a curious creation. With days until the Cricket World Cup, England played Australia on Saturday to lose by a dozen runs, then will suit up against Afghanistan on Monday. Both are unofficial matches that will never be reflected in international annals. These matches lack validity, but their existence implies they have value.
That’s true for teams working out their best combinations or fine-tuning a style, but England’s one-day side are doing neither. They have been ready to play a World Cup since Pakistan’s fast bowlers used a tacky Cardiff pitch to knock them out of the Champions Trophy two years ago.
The countdown has dragged on: the last major tour to the Caribbean earlier in the year, the jaunt to Ireland this summer, the home series against Pakistan where England racked up one outrageous batting performance after another. The last of those was the true warmup – official matches where results counted and stats were added to records. It ended with the squad finalised and its members sure of their roles. The team was as finely tuned as it could have been.
To have to go through the motions a few days later in practice matches seems pointless. Not for Australia, still tinkering with their batting order. Not for Afghanistan, who relish any chance against cricket’s big dogs. Not for the finance department, with 10,000 tickets sold for the Australia game.
But it has left England’s players having to take on matches that no one wants to play. Perhaps a late squad inclusion such as Liam Dawson might relish pulling on the England shirt whatever the occasion but for players with bigger game in their sights, the risk of injury in a pointless match has no appeal before the tournament that matters most.
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These warmups are short on desire but high on liability. Within moments of the start against Australia, injury concerns rippled through the team until the fielding coach was filling in at backward point. For those who remained, their careful conduct gave away their state of mind. Shots were allowed to pass in the infield, or stopped with feet rather than dives by the boundary. And fair enough, with Jofra Archer’s clumsy sliding save causing him an injury scare.
The captain, Eoin Morgan, was already missing with a finger fracture and Adil Rashid with a sore shoulder. Mark Wood then left for an ankle scan, Dawson cut his finger, Jason Roy badly bruised his forearm, Liam Plunkett spent time on the sidelines, and Chris Woakes forewent bowling to protect a knee.
Against Afghanistan the home side will likely use a firm XI due simply to a lack of alternatives. Morgan and Wood will remain absent while Dawson, Archer and Rashid will have to play rock-paper-scissors to see which two put their feet up. The only important outcome for England is to get through unscathed.
Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters
Afghanistan, meanwhile, could play their full squad of 15. Everyone got a run in their previous warmup match, against Pakistan, aside from the spare batsman Noor Ali Zadran, who must have been sitting in a corner with a juice box looking very cross while his teammates celebrated a narrow win.
Mohammad Shahzad and Hazratullah Zazai form their ultra-aggressive opening pair, distinct in age but not in strike rate. An imposing spin trio is formed by Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Hashmatullah Shahidi played the key innings against Pakistan last week, as did Samiullah Shinwari in 2015 when his nation notched its first win in a World Cup match.
For Afghanistan, the benefits of practice matches are much clearer. This is a team that stormed into the World Cup through an absurdly close qualifying tournament, and have prepared with wins over Ireland and Scotland before beating Pakistan by three wickets on Friday.
They would love nothing more than to replicate that result against England and won’t care a jot what configuration of players or level of detachment their opponents offer. They do not even need to win in order to benefit from some good personal performances against a strong opponent.
Here the disparity looms large. The best England can hope for is an expected win; the worst is to be knocked off course by a poor showing or further injury problems.
Good on the ECB for arranging even an unofficial match against an emerging team, something the wealthiest cricket nations do far too rarely. But regardless of the result, this is a match from which only one team stands to gain. The Afghans will reap rewards, while England have plenty to lose.