England's allrounder success leaves balancing act no closer to resolution

Sam Curran bounced back with stellar spell in the powerplay
December 07, 2023

Is this, actually, kind of the problem? The bunch of flowers and romantic evening after months of poor performance. Every all-rounder has its day, and today was the day that both Sam Curran and Liam Livingstone teased England into giving them one more date.

England's dilemma is that two of the best eleven white-ball cricketers in the country do not necessarily fit into the best XI. Make no mistake, both Curran and Livingstone are fantastic cricketers and proved their worth today with three-wicket hauls that bowled West Indies out for 202 and led to a well-earned victory. Curran bounced back from conceding the worst-ever ODI bowling figures from an England player on Sunday, to rip through the West Indies top-order with a triple powerplay strike. Livingstone then came on in the middle overs, broke the 129-run partnership that threatened to take the match away, and picked up a further two wickets for good measure.

"It was great to see Livi bowling well," Curran said at the end of the match, bigging up the skills of his mate, who regardless of their friendship off the pitch, may find themselves at odds trying to get on it.

"We just try and do our best and whatever happens, happens. He's one of my good mates and we work hard together and train hard. I don't think we need to focus on that too much."

But in the current balance of the team, Livingstone's presence prevents England from playing a fourth seamer. Which in turn, means that Curran, as one of just three quicks, has to bowl a full allocation despite being a borderline powerplay specialist. The presence of Livingstone weakens the output of Curran. And with Curran's overs under greater pressure, so too does that pressure flip back on the need for Livingstone's overs. Two magnets, pushing each other further away from the other.

The problem is that on days like today, both showed thatt, at their best, it can work. But the saying goes 'if you can't love me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best'. Not, 'if you can live with me at your best, you must also stick with me at my worst'.

England have been here before. In the opening round of the World Cup against New Zealand, they picked three seamers, with Livingstone at seven and Curran at eight and were beaten heavily. A match later, Reece Topley was selected in place of Moeen Ali and England cruised to a 137-run win. Topley took four wickets. And Curran bowled only 7.2 overs.

This is the alternative that England are presented with. With Gus Atkinson, first-class batting average of 28.14, at No.11, England could pick a fourth seamer and shuffle everyone up. Curran at seven, Brydon Carse at eight, Rehan Ahmed at nine. It is still an exceptionally deep batting line-up, and one that would also lessen the load on Curran's shoulders.

Why the emphasis on Livingstone to depart in this conversation? Because England already have a locked-in spinner in Adil Rashid (or Rehan Ahmed when he's unavailable) and Will Jacks can also provide overs of off-spin. But until Rob Key dusts off Lewis Gregory's phone number or Ben Stokes lego knee is magically cured, there is no seam-bowling all-rounder to lighten the load. A seam-bowling all-rounder in this team is currently more valuable than a spinning one.

What's more, Sam Curran has been chosen as vice-captain for the series. If that was news to you, don't be ashamed, it wasn't announced. But it nevertheless further highlights that this is a player who England wish to build a team around.

"Jos mentioned before the series if he'd like me to do it, that's a great honour." Curran said of discovering his promotion. "I do feel like more of a senior player in the side so that was a nice, proud moment. I've done a little bit with Surrey recently as well. It's a great experience, just giving Jos some ideas here and there, but today was pretty much perfect for everyone.

"It's a label but it's just been great and it was a nice feeling to be told that, but the most important thing was that we all perform our own roles in the way we did, which was really exciting."

Alternatively, Livingstone and Curran would argue why can't they be the solution to their own problem? A unanimous conclusion from the ODI World Cup was that the gap between T20 and List A cricket was bigger than people realised. Whereas previously different players would give you different answers as to how far apart the two formats are, now they're all singing from the same limited-overs hymn sheet.

"I haven't played a massive amount of 50-over cricket," Curran explained. "I feel like a senior player in this group and have played a bit more than others, but it's a format that is totally different to other formats."

People learn on the job, and in Curran and Livingstone you have two cricketers with the talent to both bat in the top seven, let alone top eight. It's just that, in the here and now, both have ODI batting averages in the 20s.

"I've played various roles in the side so I guess I'm just adapting to different type of roles," Curran said, without committing to the idea that a top-six spot is one he craves. "I'd love to just keep improving in all areas. I felt like I found a good place with the bat the other day, so that's a good sign. I know moving forward, I just want to be a lot more consistent in both facets of my game and hopefully I can fit in anywhere."

The conundrum England have to solve is whether they can change Curran and Livingstone into the players they want them to be, or if they have to change Curran and Livingstone.

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