It is easy to imagine a jovial scene in the England dressing room as it fills out at Cardiff this week: Thin Lizzy blaring, welcoming back-slaps all round and, with the World Cup honing into view, the boys of 2019 back in town.
The reality will, no doubt, be far less ‘reuniony’. These players are hardly strangers, to one another or to fans, criss-crossing paths at all manner of teams, tournaments and tee-boxes, not to mention in the Test and T20 formats that have dominated England’s agenda in the four years since the 50-over outfit enjoyed its greatest day.
Even so, just as there is a greater thrill in hearing your favourite song played on radio than on-demand, the World Cup juices will start to flow a little more freely for seeing the core of that champion side reassembled in its proper domain.
Nine of 2019’s heroes are involved in the four-match ODI series against New Zealand that begins in the Welsh capital on Friday. Of the dozen players most central to that success, only injury (Jofra Archer) and age (Eoin Morgan and Liam Plunkett) have denied a full quota the chance to defend their title in India from the start of next month.
And yet, despite so much continuity, this is not the perfectly-honed team of 2019, not the same machine — not yet, at least.
Much has been made of how little 50-over cricket England have played in this cycle compared to the last (36 ODIs since the last World Cup, compared to a whopping 88 during Morgan’s revolution between the previous two), but the contrast is even starker when you consider how few recent series have been played with anything like a full-strength team.
For reasons of injury, retirement and a hectic schedule, none of Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Joe Root have played an ODI for more than 12 months. Mark Wood has played eight in four years.
Such is the state of the contemporary calendar and, starting from lofty base camp, one would hope that England are well-equipped to defy a problem hardly unique to them. Still, there is plenty to resolve.
Starting at the top, where Bairstow is a lock but the other half of one of the great white-ball opening partnerships, Jason Roy, is in need of some runs. The Surrey man made centuries in South Africa and Bangladesh at the start of the year, each labelled potential international career-savers at the time, but has not come alive in the domestic summer after suffering a calf injury early on.
Dawid Malan is England’s alternative, also the scorer of a string of overseas hundreds this winter but certain to lose his preferred spot at No3 to Root. Like Roy, 50-over cricket is now clearly the veteran’s strongest suit, but with few chances to prove it, form for both has been difficult to gauge and the next four matches will have to tell all.
Despite so much continuity, this is not the perfectly-honed team of 2019, not the same machine — not yet, at least
Going all in on one or other at the top of the order could be England’s route to solving their Harry Brook conundrum, the Yorkshireman having been belatedly called up for this series on Wednesday following widespread criticism of his omission from a provisional World Cup squad that even now, he is not in. The 24-year-old has played only three ODIs, but one innings of real substance over the next week would surely complete a case already impossible to ignore.
Were it not for the expected spin-friendly conditions in India, Liam Livingstone might be under more pressure, the all-rounder out of sorts but valued for his ability to turn the ball both ways. A lower-middle-order of Livingstone and Moeen Ali at No6 and No7, however, looks a touch flimsy, and England must establish quickly whether two explosive T20 players can be relied upon to rebuild an innings in the longer form should top-order wickets tumble.
A stable of six seamers, plus Brydon Carse, who, like Brook, is in World Cup limbo for now, suggests England plan to manage workloads throughout a long tournament, and figuring out an exact pecking order looks less of a priority. But should push come to shove (say, when looking to squeeze in a certain extra batter) that level of choice may be deemed an expendable luxury and each quick will be desperate for a performance to edge clear of any late cull.