Liam Livingstone aces England acid test to strengthen spot in World Cup engine room

Batting prowess: Liam Livingstone struck an unbeaten 95 from 78 balls to steer England to victory over New Zealand in second ODI  (Action Images via Reuters)
Batting prowess: Liam Livingstone struck an unbeaten 95 from 78 balls to steer England to victory over New Zealand in second ODI (Action Images via Reuters)

Midway through the only series a packed schedule has given England to focus fully on World Cup preparation, they cannot yet have drawn too many firm conclusions.

Friday’s hefty defeat by New Zealand in Cardiff was made up of some encouraging batting contributions and a flat bowling display; Sunday’s victory at the Ageas Bowl included a worrying top-order collapse but an excellent fightback with the ball.

In selection terms, a few niggles and the birth of Dawid Malan V have denied Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott the chance to trial a first-choice XI in either of the first two ODIs.

Jason Roy, the batter whose form is the biggest unknown, has not been able to prove it because of a back spasm. Mark Wood and Adil Rashid, England’s most valuable bowlers, are having to be handled with kid gloves. Harry Brook has had the chances so many demanded, but has so far failed to take them batting out of position.

With so much tournament know-how to lean on within the 2019 vintage, a slightly pick and mix build-up thus far need not prove preclusive to success, and a tournament format that forgives the odd growing pain does not quite demand that Buttler’s men hit the ground running at full pelt in India just 23 days from now. Even so, with plenty to ponder elsewhere, it will please the skipper no end that in Liam Livingstone he has a player primed to do just that.

After following a half-century on Friday night with an unbeaten 95 here in Southampton, Livingstone has surely solidified his middle-order place in England’s best XI, perhaps the one concrete finding to emerge from the weekend’s research.

The all-rounder had not passed 50 in any format during a lean summer, the option of his handy spin doing much of the heavy lifting in warranting a place in the side, but has now made two of his three highest ODI scores in the space of 72 hours, and in contrasting styles.

Friday’s episode was one we have all seen before (albeit more often in condensed form in T20 cricket), Livingstone arriving at the crease with a platform set and providing some late gusto in the shape of 52 from 40 balls, including three sixes, in conditions that had both timing and boundaries proving elusive to most others.

Livingstone’s rare capacity to explode at any stage of an innings has long been talked up as his biggest strength. Yet, as he stressed in several interviews across the course of the weekend, he has become a victim of his own success on that front, left “crying out for time in the middle” after going more than two years without a knock in any format that lasted 50 balls.

Given that nonexistent sample, it is little wonder that doubts have persisted over the 30-year-old’s ability to build longer innings, the kind that will be required from time to time of a player batting as high as No6 in the 50-over game.

Sunday’s top-order collapse to Trent Boult’s superb new-ball spell could hardly have teed up a more perfect acid test, England in firm bother at 55 for five when Livingstone came to the crease with more than 20 overs to bat and no more specialists in the shed.

A partnership of 112 with Sam Curran dragged the home side back into the game and, heading into the World Cup, ought to serve as reassurance of England’s near-bottomless batting depth, a cornerstone of their white-ball transformation for not only the demoralisation of opponents but also the freedom granted to those up the order.

Exactly who will partner Jonny Bairstow at its vanguard remains one of a few World Cup unknowns. In the engine room, though, Livingstone’s place looks increasingly secure.