England Test skipper Ben Stokes’ return to the T20I setup has added to Jos Buttler’s selection dilemma ahead of the ICC T20 World Cup, with the white-ball captain wanting to play the charismatic allrounder at the top of the order while also realising it could create an imbalance in the bowling department on bouncy Australian pitches.
“He (Stokes) 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 was quoted as saying by ICC on Tuesday. “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.”
With Alex Hales likely to partner Buttler as the top of the batting order and Dawid Malan almost certain to come in at No.3, Stokes could be slotted at No. 4 according to England white-ball coach Matthew Mott. Buttler has indicated Stokes could even be brought ahead of Malan if the openers get off to a rollicking start.
Stokes at No.4 — or No. 3 –, though, could present England with a serious selection dilemma. The Test skipper hasn’t played a T20 game for a major part of two years prior to the warm-up matches against Australia and Pakistan here, and he has also hardly featured in domestic and franchise tournaments during this phase.
Also, Stokes’ T20I record playing for the country isn’t really flattering, a part of it has to do with the fact that he has so far batted down the order. But with Stokes smashing 36 off 18 deliveries in the final warm-up game against Pakistan, coming in at number three, Buttler and the team management will certainly pick him in the Playing XI.
“Ben is a superstar and a guy you want in the team,” Buttler had said earlier this month. “There is a lot of excitement to have him back.”
But his presence at the top of the batting could pose England with difficult selection calls to be taken. Liam Livingstone’s return from injury saw the batter smash 28 from 16 against Pakistan, but for him to get into the side, either a frontline bowler will have to be dropped or another of the top six — all of whom have very strong cases.
Picking Stokes at four and Livingstone as low as seven would give England a very strong batting line-up. But it would leave Buttler needing Stokes, Livingstone and Moeen Ali to bowl at least four overs — something that will not be ideal on pitches that won’t necessarily aid spin.
Having Sam Curran at eight as one of four frontline bowlers would be the likeliest option given his form ahead of the tournament, but such a selection feels a bowler short, given the lack of a gun finisher in England’s squad, according to ICC.
Having Stokes in the side and Curran at seven would give England plenty of bowling options, and Curran can hold his own in that role — as he showed with a 33-run cameo against Pakistan off just 14 balls on Monday.
In the event, the question is which batter misses out. Livingstone looked in fine nick against Pakistan, while Harry Brook also impressed in that game following his successful tour against Pakistan recently. Leaving out either of those batters could be a difficult proposition.
Moeen Ali has been mentioned by experts as the player who could make way, but the all-rounder’s leadership role cannot be discounted in the squad as he recently guided England to a 4-3 T20I series win in Pakistan. Besides, Moeen has been one of the form batters for England this year, averaging 32.71 at a strike rate of 164.16 across 17 T20I innings in 2022, according to ICC.
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.