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How Do England Replace Jason Roy?

Ben Jones takes a look at England’s potential solutions to the problems caused by Roy’s absence.

Jason Roy’s calf-injury against South Africa was a huge blow for England. Roy plays a crucial role in Eoin Morgan’s side, starting at the speed of light, giving Jos Buttler the cushion to get set without the rate falling unduly. His recent improvements against spin have taken his game up a level, and his Powerplay aggression has been highly significant in a tournament which has heavily leant on those overs for run scoring. Having managed the absences of Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes – as well as Tymal Mills and Sam Curran – England fans would be forgiven for thinking this is one injury too many.

So how do England solve this problem?

Option 1 – Change the Balance

Had there been no injury on Saturday night, there was a relatively straightforward choice to be made for England’s semi-final selection. The bowling – particularly the death bowling – was not good enough, exposed for the first time (in this competition) to a good batting line-up, and a good batting track. Weakened by the absence of Jofra Archer, Tymal Mills, and to an extent Sam Curran, England lack a bit of quality in their pace attack, and most notably at the death. One logical response to this is to move to a bowling heavy strategy, one where a bowling all-rounder slots in at No.7, rather than Moeen Ali. This could be Chris Woakes sliding up a spot, with one of David Willey, Reece Topley, or Tom Curran coming in behind him; it could be one of Willey or Curran themselves taking the No.7 spot. 

Before Roy pulled up, the obvious candidate to drop out in place of a bowler was Dawid Malan, the most vulnerable of England’s specialist batsmen. But in light of Roy’s injury, the opportunity is there for one of David Willey or Tom Curran to move into the side in place of Roy, altering the balance – but following the logic. If the bowling was too weak for the batting while Roy was in the side, then it’s not got any better since he’s dropped out.

But equally, Eoin Morgan is unlikely to see it that way, given the bowling personnel remains unhampered by injury. In some respects, the key player in making England’s batting-heavy approach work has been Moeen. Given his mixed record as a bowler, and England seemingly moving away from viewing him as a frontline option, his resurgence in this tournament has been huge. Only one man has bowled more Powerplay deliveries than Moeen this World Cup, and that’s Chris Woakes. By hammering out Moeen’s “Fifth Bowler” overs early, effectively, England have made the plan work. The concern comes when teams have more RHB-heavy top orders (like Australia, against whom didn’t bowl a ball), the burden then shifting to Livingstone who, despite good recent results, is a much inferior bowler. It’s important to note then that neither Daryl Mitchell or Martin Guptill have particularly terrifying records against off spin, and while either could come off, they’re unlikely to affect Morgan’s planning in the way Aaron Finch did. 

And so, going bowling heavy feels less necessary, and tougher to pull off. The best bowler of the group outside the team, Willey, is perhaps the bowler who fits least obviously into the current XI, given he bowls in identical phases to Woakes – and doesn’t strengthen the death bowling. In another way, he’s the easiest to incorporate in that, more than anyone else, he has the potential to strengthen the bowling without detracting from the batting too much; despite being a worse batsman than Roy, Willey can be an effective hitter, and would offer something of a halfway house between the two strategies. The man who ostensibly does strengthen the death bowling, Tom Curran, is probably the weakest bowler of the group, and one who has struggled significantly in international cricket for some time. Reece Topley is the most versatile of the three in terms of phase usage, and would perhaps be the right blend of quality and appropriateness for this attack, but it would seem a huge risk to throw him into a semi-final with so little preparation. 

Option 2 – Same Balance – Bairstow to Open, Billings at No.4

In many ways, this is the closest thing England have to a status-quo option. Jonny Bairstow is an elite T20 batsman regardless of where in the top five he bats, and his flexibility always gives England options. Moving to No.4 has been a hugely successful move, spreading England’s two best players – him and Buttler – throughout the innings. However, his record as a T20 opener (averaging over 40 and striking at 148 in the last four years) is superb and, in Roy’s absence, he’s quite straightforwardly the next best player available.

Sam Billings is a good, reliable T20 batsman, who has a clear preference for batting in the middle order. His sweeps – conventional and reverse – are part of an excellent game against spin, allowing him to slot in quite straightforwardly anywhere from No.4-6. While Billings is by no means a world class player, he has very few weaknesses. However, his one genuine weakness – from a statistical standpoint at least – is his record facing high pace bowling, against which he averages just 20. With Moeen Ali and Eoin Morgan also in the middle order, England may feel that three players “vulnerable” to high pace might be one too many, even with Livingstone as a shield.

Option 3 – Same Balance, Malan to Open, Everyone Moves Up, Billings Slots In

The concern with pairing Bairstow and Buttler together at the top is that New Zealand’s primary weapon is their new ball attack. Trent Boult is a very effective swing bowler, and while his career strike rate in the Powerplay is middling, it’s much improved in recent seasons – without the safety blanket of Bairstow in the middle order, away from that swing, England are a little vulnerable.

With this in mind, one option would be to promote Dawid Malan to open the batting. While Malan is quite out of form in T20 cricket, and has struggled this year, his broader record – particularly against pace – is solid. The much-discussed caution early on in his innings might go against England’s general approach this tournament – to fully maximise the Powerplay, and accept the risk involved – it might be a good fit for this particular game. Provided he scores at a reasonable rate, and doesn’t get stuck against Santner and Sodhi when they come on, Malan could act as a firewall against the main threat New Zealand pose.

Option 4 – Same Balance – Livingstone to Open, Billings at No.5

In terms of like for like, Liam Livingstone is perhaps the closest player England have to Jason Roy. Livingstone is a fast-starter, which is a key element of Roy’s position in this team, but he’s also a great hitter of pace more generally – he even comes with Roy’s comparable weakness against left-arm orthodox bowlers. The only member of the England squad (and one of the only active players of any nationality) with a better high pace record than Livingstone, is Roy. While T20 teams appear to have collectively moved to use Livingstone in the middle order, Livingstone is actually the most recently experienced opening option England have available – nobody in the squad has opened in more T20 matches than him over the last three years. In many ways, it makes complete sense to promote him, and bring in the specialist middle order option of Billings.

One argument against this move is that Livingstone’s great strength is his six-hitting ability, and that despite him having experience at the top of the order, Powerplay batting is often more about hitting fours than sixes given the field is up. Similarly, Livingstone’s other pronounced strength is that game against high pace, and England may see his presence in the middle order to be a deterrent against New Zealand deploying Adam Milne in the middle overs, targeting Moeen Ali and Eoin Morgan who, to varying extents, have issues against high pace short balls.

Option 5 – Same Balance – Vince to Open

This is perhaps the least likely of the “realistic” options available to England. James Vince has been called into the squad as Roy’s direct injury replacement, though he has been part of England’s travelling bubble for the duration of the tournament and its preparation. A classy, experienced T20 opener (who pushes Livingstone close for recent innings in the role), Vince-for-Roy would be the simplest way to deal with this selection dilemma, a plug ‘n’ play that disrupts as little of the XI as possible. Throw in some match-specific arguments (most notably his superb record against left-arm pace), and the case is a persuasive one.

However, England might be understandably spooked by Vince’s underwhelming performance in the 2019 ODI World Cup, when he was also asked to fill in for an injured Jason Roy. Vince’s middling run in that phase of the tournament coincided with England’s slump, and while his selection shows they haven’t lost faith in him, there may be a reluctance to throw him into the pressure cooker of a semi-final off the back of very little recent cricket. Equally, for all Vince’s well-rounded game, the presence of Sodhi and Santner will be a concern when putting out an all right-handed opening pair without the spin-hitting instincts of Bairstow.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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