his time two years ago, England were looking ahead to a year of cricket like no other. A summer featuring a home World Cup and an Ashes series back-to-back represented a unique opportunity. Now, as they look ahead to 2021, largely the same generation of players face a unique challenge.
Or make that ‘challenges’, for rarely if ever can a squad have had laid out before them such a broad range of obstacles.
A year which starts with Tests on the turning wicket of Galle will end in the midst of an Ashes series on hostile tracks Down Under. In between, England will face nine Tests against India, split between the sub-continent and home soil, as well as a plethora of white-ball fixtures as Eoin Morgan’s men ready themselves for the autumn’s rescheduled T20 World Cup. All of that will be played out against the backdrop of a global pandemic which has left an already congested calendar overflowing and necessitated the advent of gruelling “bubble-life” in order to keep the international cricket show on the road.
To the red ball stuff, first. Last summer’s series wins over West Indies and Pakistan saw Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley cement their places in a youthful, but increasingly settled batting line-up, while Jos Buttler showed signs of realising his talent in the longer form of the game.
In the bowling department there are more options, more quality and, with a view to the Ashes, more questions. The idea that James Anderson and Stuart Broad would still be going strong next winter seemed fanciful not all that long ago, let alone that the latter, in particular, would be playing some of the best cricket of his career. Joe Root and Chris Silverwood will no doubt spend much of the next year trying to find the right balance in a seam attack that also boasts the talents of Jofra Archer, Sam Curran, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Olly Stone.
One match on English soil in which none look likely to feature is the final of the inaugural World Test Championship, scheduled to take place next summer at Lord’s, possibly between India and Australia, though exactly how the finalists will be determined given the havoc Covid cancellations have wreaked on an already convoluted, slightly nonsensical, system remains to be seen. In a world of quarantines and travel restrictions, the wisdom of flying two squads to a neutral venue – which may or may not be able to host a capacity crowd – for a one-off fixture will no doubt be questioned, too.
More conventional world champions, of the T20 variety, will be crowned in November and as was the case in build up to 2019, England’s white-ball focus has already shifted to the matter at hand.
Dawid Malan’s ascendancy to the no1 ranked batsman in the world in the format has added to what was already an embarrassment of top order riches, but with the World Cup being held in India, it is perhaps the fitness of Adil Rashid – as well as the form of Moeen Ali – which holds the key to England’s hopes.
T20 will not be the shortest format of the game to take centre-stage next year, however, with the belated launch of The Hundred. The much-criticised ECB venture will no doubt be under even greater scrutiny from its well-established sceptics when it eventually gets underway in the summer. Given its cost amid the financial impact of the pandemic, it is even more imperative that it succeeds.
The competition is also set to play a key role in the growth of the women’s game, which, more broadly, many feared might be stunted by pandemic-enforced cuts, the euphoric scenes of 86,000 at the MCG for the T20 World Cup final in March having been so quickly followed by a global shutdown.
In England, that has not been the case, with 41 players now having signed full-time domestic professional contracts for next year across eight regional teams, in addition to the 17 centrally-contracted international players.
The major question in 2021 will be whether the same kind of commitment is made elsewhere in the world.