England face Chris Woakes selection quandary ahead of crucial South Africa clash

By Sports Desk October 20, 2023

England were grappling with a selection quandary on the eve of their crucial World Cup clash against South Africa, with captain Jos Buttler weighing up Chris Woakes’ role as leader of the attack.

Woakes’ new-ball skills have been a reliable centrepiece of the side ever since their white-ball reinvention eight years ago, but he has suffered an uncharacteristic wobble since arriving in India.

Three loose starts from the usually dependable seamer have undermined England’s efforts so far and an economy rate of 7.5 an over, coupled with two wickets at 67.50 each, tells a concerning story.

But with victory a must in Mumbai on Saturday following defeats to New Zealand and Afghanistan, taking the most established pace bowler out of the firing line would still represent a significant call.

Buttler acknowledged Woakes’ long-term record and recent dip in form represented a conflicted picture and is set to thrash the matter out with head coach Matthew Mott.

“He’s been a fantastic performer for an incredibly long time for England in all the formats and especially in one-day cricket,” he said.

“But we’re all honest guys, right? We’re all honest professionals who hold each other to high standards and individually expect a lot of ourselves. He knows he’s not performing quite how he would like to at the minute, and that’s frustrating, but there’s no judgement from our side.

“We always back all our players that are in our team – we picked them for a number of reasons and one because they’re high-class players and he’s certainly one of those.”

David Willey stands by as a specialist powerplay bowler, eager to showcase his left-arm swing on the World Cup stage after missing out on the 2019 tournament by a whisker, while Surrey’s Gus Atkinson has yet to feature.

Whatever happens, Ben Stokes is locked in to make his eagerly-anticipated return after missing all three games with a hip injury. And, with his stand-in Harry Brook providing the only bright spot of a botched chase against Afghanistan, a rebalancing of the XI could be under consideration. Sam Curran, light on runs and expensive with the ball, has left himself particularly vulnerable.

“I think I’ve got so many options within the squad, selection is always tough,” Buttler said.

“You’re working out the right balance, which is always venue dependent as well, and we’ve had a good chance to see the wicket here and gather a bit more information.

“Obviously Ben has trained really well and it’s great to see him back. He obviously brings a lot on the field and with his presence and leadership skills as well, so he’s someone who is always good to turn to.”

Both teams are looking to bounce back from stinging upsets last time out, with the Proteas’ implosion against the Netherlands somehow leapfrogging England’s reverse against Afghanistan in the pantheon of World Cup shocks within 24 hours.

The last time the two sides faced off at this storied venue, in the 2016 T20 World Cup, it was a classic encounter that saw England hunt down 230 – still their record chase in the format.

There are six survivors from that side still on parade seven years later, including Buttler. Now he is hoping England can relocate similar attacking instincts once again.

“There are great memories of that night, albeit a long time ago. It was one of my favourite games,” he recalled.

“I think this is one of the great grounds in India. I love playing cricket here. I think it’s a fantastic cricket wicket and, absolutely, it should suit us.

“We want to find ways to make a play, to put the opposition under pressure in lots of different ways. That doesn’t always mean hitting fours and sixes, it means can we push back when the opposition is on top or can we really take the initiative in different ways. That’s what we want to live by as a team.”

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