This has been a strange halfway house of a series, billed as the start of England’s final World Cup preparation and yet dominated by talk of a player who, as things stand, will not be there.
While half of Jos Buttler’s squad were head to Cardiff on Wednesday to continue their build-up to next month’s 50-over showpiece in India, Harry Brook was among those on his way home, the door to the World Cup still ajar, but not exactly being held open, after England decided against adding the young batter to their ranks for the four ODIs against New Zealand, which start in the Welsh capital on Friday.
When the squad for the Black Caps series was named last month, the 15-man group — since upped to 16 with seamer Brydon Carse’s addition — was declared the same one that would go to India. The messaging on that front has since softened, however, with head coach Matthew Mott insisting here after the Fourth T20 in Nottingham on Tuesday that it remains a provisional selection, England not required to nail their colours to the mast until September 28.
“[Brook’s] a gun player and I believe he is going to be one of the best players in his generation,” Mott said. “We are keeping an open mind.”
If the Australian’s comments did little to bring clarity to a debate that will rumble on, then, in fairness, this was not a night on which Brook did much to move the needle either, a brief innings of four from eight balls his least impactful of the series, as England squandered the start given to them by Jonny Bairstow’s 73 off 41, New Zealand fighting back to earn a 2-2 draw with victory by six wickets.
Bairstow does not tend to do much under the radar, and so to suggest he has offered a ‘quiet’ reminder of his outstanding quality over the past week would be something of a stretch. But against the uncertainty seeded by the Brook saga, Mott and Buttler can rest assured that, a month out from the World Cup, their key opener is in fine fettle.
This was the Yorkshireman’s second half-century in three matches, following on from an unbeaten 86 at Old Trafford last Friday, and enough to earn the player of the series award in his first limited-overs run for England since a horrendous leg break last summer. While it always seemed likely he would have little trouble picking up the bit on his return to the side, it was not a total given.
Bairstow has played precious little white-ball cricket over the past 12 months, missing the T20 World Cup triumph, the Indian Premier League and four bilateral tours during his lengthy winter absence. He, understandably, took a while to find a consistent groove during the Ashes after so long out, and his brief run of four Hundred matches with Welsh Fire produced only a par return: a couple of forties and a couple of failures.
“I think throughout the summer, be it red-ball or white-ball, I’ve been fairly happy with how I’ve been striking the ball,” Bairstow said. “It’s something where you’re keen to get back into the rhythm of it, and I think that rhythm’s coming a bit more.”
With the change of format will come a clearer picture of England’s readiness to defend their crown, the side to be bolstered in Cardiff by an influx of the core that lifted the trophy in 2019, including the likes of Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes.
Brook, for now at least, is left waiting in the wings.