Five questions for England to answer in New Zealand
England have treated T20 cricket as ODI-lite since their last-over defeat in Kolkata three years ago. The nature of the international schedule means their T20Is have resembled exhibition matches, tacked on to the start or end of 50-over series, and the lack of an impending world tournament has led to a bitty record: they have won 12 games, lost 10, and used 26 players since that 2016 final.
But their five-match series in New Zealand is an important step on the road to Australia next winter. There are only 12 more games scheduled for England between this tour and the start of the World Cup, so it is important that they gain at least some idea of where they stand in the format. Here are five questions they would do well to answer…
Are the Blast's best good enough?
This series represents a big opportunity for four of the Blast's most consistent performers in recent years, all of whom are largely untested outside of domestic cricket.
Pat Brown and Matt Parkinson are the two leading wicket-takers in the Blast over the past two seasons, with 48 and 46 scalps respectively. Brown's temperament stood out in the past two editions of T20 Finals Day, as he repeatedly held his nerve on county cricket's biggest stage with his array of variations at the death, but a combination of flat pitches and short boundaries in New Zealand will provide a stern test.
Parkinson, meanwhile, has an opportunity to nail down a spot as second spinner: Moeen Ali will be in the World Cup starting XI as a middle-order hitter, but Adil Rashid's troublesome shoulder means that there should be room for another spin option in the squad. Parkinson bowls an old-school variety of legspin, tossing the ball up at 45mph, and given his relative weakness against left-handers, he will be keen to prove himself against Colin Munro, Jimmy Neesham and Mitchell Santner.
With the bat, Somerset pair Lewis Gregory and Tom Banton had standout seasons in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Gregory has a chance to stake his claim to be England's finisher, with a death-overs strike rate of 211.83 against pace (since 2018), though his record against spin is a concern, albeit from a small sample. Banton acquitted himself well against both spin and pace in the Blast, though the dual threat of Santner and Ish Sodhi will be a stern test, and he was beaten for pace by Lockie Ferguson in Sunday's first warm-up match.
What is Morgan's best role?
It is easy to think Eoin Morgan is the first name on England's T20 teamsheet, but it is worth putting that claim under scrutiny. Since playing four games in the 2017 IPL, Morgan's experience has almost exclusively been limited to the Blast and sporadic international games - plus four appearances in the CPL, three in the PSL, and four in the Mzansi Super League.
In that period, his form with the bat has been relatively unspectacular. He has a strike rate of 141.7 - good, but not outstanding given how many games he has played on flat pitches in the Blast - and his record against spin (128.3 SR, 22.59 average) is a concern given he is primarily a middle-order player.
Throw in his troublesome back, his cautious approach in the Powerplay, and the extent to which T20 has evolved since he last regularly captained a side, and it is far from obvious that Morgan is England's best option as a No. 4. Instead, it might be worth considering him as a finisher. His recent record against pace at the death (209.5 SR, 24.1 av.) is superb, and England lack an obvious alternative at No. 6; he may not be happy about it, but that might well be Morgan's best role.
Does Silverwood need a hand?
Chris Silverwood's appointment as England coach was met by most with a nod of approval, a sign that Ashley Giles' promised shift in focus towards Test cricket was genuine. But with two T20 World Cups scheduled in the next two years and England among the favourites for both, it is noteworthy that he is in charge of all formats, not just red-ball cricket.
Silverwood's two seasons as a T20 head coach brought 12 wins and 14 losses in charge of a decent Essex side, and his playing career saw him gain little relevant short-form experience.
While he has been around the England side in the past two years, it should at least be considered that he could do with a hand in T20 cricket; if it becomes apparent that he lacks specialist knowledge in the format during this tour, then Giles would do well to appoint someone with recent franchise experience - Johan Botha or Shane Bond, for example - in a 'consultant' role to give him a helping hand.
Who is the back-up batsman?
There are four batsmen in the England squad aged 28 or above for whom this tour is a massive opportunity. Realistically, it is hard to see how more than two of Joe Denly, James Vince, Dawid Malan and Sam Billings can be in the 15-man squad to go to the World Cup, so this will be a chance to stake a claim.
England have used Denly very strangely in white-ball cricket, and T20 in particular. He looks set to be used as a spin-bowling allrounder who bats in the middle order, but that is a role he never fills outside of international cricket.
Since 2017, he has played 55 innings in the top three, and four between No. 4 and No. 7, all of them for England. Vince is a good option as a top-order batsman, but his case suffers due to the wealth of candidates in that role.
Malan, meanwhile, is a fantastic player of spin, but counterintuitively has largely been used at No. 3 by England despite his cautious approach in the Powerplay. He is set to open in Tuesday's warm-up match, but should really be deployed in the middle overs, where he scored at a strike rate of 201.5 against spin in the Blast this season.
Billings has the chance to showcase his talents. He made 87 not out off 47 balls in his last T20I innings, but had a torrid summer after missing out on the preliminary World Cup squad and then suffering a serious shoulder injury. His installment as vice-captain is a real vote of confidence, and he has benefited from working with Stephen Fleming for two years at Chennai Super Kings.
Which seamers will emerge from the pack?
England have a huge number of seam-bowling options for next year's World Cup: Jofra Archer is a lock, but any of Chris Jordan, David Willey, Liam Plunkett, Tom and Sam Curran, Tymal Mills, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, Pat Brown, Saqib Mahmood and Harry Gurney could feasibly fill the remaining spots in the squad.
Jordan has been England's only T20 ever-present since 2016, but his record in club colours in the last 12 months (9.06 ER, 29.70 average) is underwhelming, and Brown and Tom Curran will provide competition as death bowlers.
Sam Curran can prove his worth both as a finisher with the bat and a Powerplay specialist with the ball, while Mahmood will also largely bowl up front, having bowled more than two thirds of his overs for Lancashire in the Blast this year in the first six.
Morgan has generally preferred his seamers to be flexible, and capable of bowling in every phase, but it is important that they are given clarity in their roles ahead of Friday's opener.