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The class of Stokes is in little doubt, and yet as a T20 player he remains something of an enigma.
England’s Test captain hadn’t played a T20 International for the best part of two years prior to the warm-up matches against Australia and Pakistan, and he has also barely featured in domestic and franchise tournaments in that time either.
It’s also worth noting that Stokes’ T20I record for England isn’t particularly special. And while part of that is due to his role, with Stokes often being used down the order away from his strengths in previous T20I appearances, it also replicates an underwhelming record in other T20 competitions.
How to utilise Stokes has been the biggest question, with his impact being greatest as an opener in previous hot streaks in the format – a position he is unlikely to be picked in at this tournament.
However, for captain Jos Buttler and the rest of the England management set-up, picking a player like Stokes in the XI is a given, and it wasn’t hard to see why as he smashed 36 from 18 balls in the final warm-up game against Pakistan, coming in at number three.
“Ben is a superstar and a guy you want in the team,” Buttler said earlier this month. “There is a lot of excitement to have him back.”
With Alex Hales and Buttler seemingly locked as openers and with Dawid Malan almost certain to start at number three, Stokes is carded to come in at four according to England coach Matthew Mott.
And Buttler believes batting him there, potentially even bringing him in ahead of Malan if the openers get off to a flier, is the best use of Stokes’ batting talents.
“He is someone we want to try to give as much opportunity to impact the game as possible, try to get him up the order as high as we can,” Buttler said. “We’re looking to give him as much responsibility as possible and allow him to play his way to get the best out of him.”
And yet, batting Stokes at four does present England with a selection dilemma.
Good to have you back, Livi! 👋
He’s just hit it out of the Gabba 😅#T20WorldCup | @liaml4893
Liam Livingstone’s return from injury saw the big-hitting batter slam 28 from 16 against Pakistan, but for him to get into the side, either a front-line bowler would have to be dropped or another of the top six – all of whom have very strong cases.
Picking Stokes at four and Livingstone potentially as low as seven would give England a hugely strong batting line-up. But it would leave Buttler needing to get at least four overs out of Stokes, Livingstone and Moeen Ali – something that is perhaps not ideal on pitches that aren’t guaranteed to be friendly to spin.
Having Sam Curran at eight as one of four front-line bowlers would be the likeliest option given the Surrey man’s form ahead of the tournament, but such a selection feels a bowler light given the lack of a gun finisher in England’s squad.
Having Stokes in the side and Curran at seven would give England plenty of bowling options, and Curran can certainly hold his own in that role – as he highlighted with a 33-run salvo against Pakistan off just 14 deliveries on Monday.
But which batter misses out?
Livingstone has been carrying an injury but looked in good touch against Pakistan, while Harry Brook also impressed in that game after his successful tour against the same opponents just weeks ago. Leaving out either of those batters would seem harsh.
45 runs 🏏
24 balls ⚪
4 sixes 💪
2 fours 💥
Yes, Brooky! 👏 pic.twitter.com/cLxEM76yvE
Moeen has been mentioned by some pundits as a player who could make way, but the all-rounder is an important leadership figure in the squad and de facto captain in the field when Buttler is behind the stumps, so England would be reticent to leave the left-hander out.
And even if he doesn’t bowl, Moeen has been one of the form batters in the England set-up this year, averaging 32.71 at a strike rate of 164.16 across 17 T20I innings in 2022.
The only other alternative could be to leave out Hales and open with Stokes or Malan, shifting the rest of the order up one. But the return of Hales to England’s T20 side was a big move from Buttler and Mott and they will be keen to see that move proven justified.
Drop a big-name batter to accommodate Stokes;
Or go with a bowler light;
What would you do?
It is a significant selection dilemma for England. But whatever starting XI they choose for the tournament opener against Afghanistan, the order will almost certainly be flexible.
“I think we all know that anyone can bat at a specific time,” Malan revealed after he was moved down to number seven against Australia earlier this month.
“I’m pretty sure if Livingstone was playing he might have come in at three (rather than Stokes), or if we’d have had 100/1 with a small boundary it might have been somebody else.
“We’re very flexible as a team. In the last World Cup I batted five in one of the games. I guess we go with what we need on a specific day, we’re very adaptive.”
Jos Buttler (c), Moeen Ali, Harry Brook, Sam Curran, Chris Jordan, Liam Livingstone, Dawid Malan, Adil Rashid, Phil Salt, Ben Stokes, Reece Topley, David Willey, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Alex Hales.
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