Who knew that Moeen Ali's abrupt involvement in England's Test tour of India could prove to be so serendipitous? After a winter of endless frustration with England - starting with his Covid-19 diagnosis in Sri Lanka and culminating in his absence from all five matches of England's T20I series - here he is, starring for the franchise in whose city he played his solitary Test of the winter. He is batting at No. 3 with unfettered joy, and playing a quietly vital role with his offspin too. First-drop was a void for Chennai Super Kings in their abject IPL campaign last season, but with MS Dhoni's relaxed approach encouraging Ali not to try too hard, but to focus on timing the ball, he has picked up where he left off in that de facto auction audition in February. Ali made 43 from 17 balls from No. 9 at the fag end of England's defeat, but it restated an easily overlooked truth, that there are few more natural six-hitters in the game. Subsequent knocks of 36 from 24 against the Delhi Capitals, and 46 from 31 against the Punjab Kings have carried on in a similar vein.
Perhaps the IPL need not have a drastic impact on England's T20 World Cup plans, but the machinations at the Sunrisers Hyderabad are worth keeping an eye on nonetheless. Jonny Bairstow has been an undoubted success at No. 4 for England in recent times, where his clean aggression against the spinners can come to the fore, as shown with a 32-ball fifty in their campaign opener against the Kolkata Knight Riders. But, with Wriddhiman Saha struggling to make an impact at the top, the old bromance was rekindled for Saturday's clash with the Mumbai Indians. Bairstow and David Warner were reunited as an opening pair, and Bairstow duly seized the moment with a startling onslaught - 39 from his first 14 balls, including four fours and four sixes - even smashing a fridge door in the process before he smashed his own stumps for 43. That let the champions back into the game, but the message was clear. Bairstow is in a rich vein of form, and the longer he gets to display it, the better it may be for his team.
The last man standing of the Rajasthan Royals' English triumvirate (with apologies to Liam Livingstone), a whole lot rests on Jos Buttler right now, with his team's overseas contingent pillaged by the finger injuries to Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes. At least he set the right example in their agonising opening-round loss to the Punjab Kings, as he clattered out of the blocks in pursuit of 222, rifling Riley Meredith for four consecutive fours in his 13-ball 25 before Jhye Richardson exacted revenge on behalf of all Australians with a well-directed yorker. Stokes' injury in that contest sent Buttler back up the order against the Delhi Capitals, where Chris Woakes was waiting to snag the bragging rights… but at least the Royals held their nerve this time, thanks to their new million-dollar man, Chris Morris.
It beggars belief that Chris Woakes has not played for England in T20Is since 2015 - or in any form of the game since September last year, despite being acclaimed as the PCA men's player of the year in October after starring with red and white ball alike. But what he has lacked in game-time he has more than made up for in game-craft, with a series of startlingly composed bowling displays that make you wonder if he is England's missing link for the T20 World Cup. Certainly there are growing concerns about Tom Curran's form and confidence, but Woakes' old-school performances have been revelatory, and shown that sometimes it's best not to outthink yourself, let alone the batter. Tight lines, cutters, canny slower balls when required, but more than anything else, a faith in that just-back-of-a-length stock ball that helped win a World Cup. That's a badge of honour that counts for plenty when you're playing chicken with batters who want to smash you into next week.
It's mildly perplexing to think that, in England's T20I team, Ali and Sam Curran are basically competing for a single non-specific berth - probably at or around No. 7, with their bowling expected to fit around the big three pillars of the attack, Archer, Mark Wood and Adil Rashid. In the IPL, Ali's stock is higher than it's ever been, and Curran's just keeps on rising. He was widely acclaimed as the Super Kings' brightest prospect in a grim 2020 campaign, and he's begun this year with similar gusto, not least in his act of fratricide to mangle Tom's figures in the game against the Capitals. He made 34 from 15 in the death overs on that occasion, and he followed that up with 1 for 12 in three overs against the Punjab Kings, his efforts split between the powerplay and the 20th over, where he cleaned up Shahrukh Khan, the only batter to get a toe-hold. Another big season is taking shape.
A quiet start for the Knight Riders' captain, with the bat and on the field, where a comfortable opening-round victory over the Sunrisers was followed by a pair of contrasting losses to the Mumbai Indians and the Royal Challengers Bangalore. The former was a batting malfunction with the chase at their mercy, the latter, a death by AB de Villiers and, well, that happens from time to time, even if Morgan's decision to take Varun Chakravarthy out of the attack after he had removed Virat Kohli and Rajat Patidar in his first over raised eyebrows, not least from Gautam Gambhir, who called it some of the "weirdest captaincy" he'd ever seen. Morgan made 29 from 23 in the reply, his first double-figured contribution of the campaign, but he'll want more from his own bat to back up his authority.
The rueful shakes of the head and sotto voce curses have said it all. Tom Curran is not having much fun with the ball at the moment, and for a bowler of his type, so much of it stems from his own mindset. England know what he can do when his game-brain is in gear - he relishes the cut-and-thrust of death bowling in particular, or rather he used to, for his recent efforts have seemed rather punch-drunk. Arguably, he has not yet recovered from a gruelling experience in Sharjah at the last IPL, where the short boundaries and plentiful dew played havoc with his variations. But whatever type of slower ball he chooses to attempt, knee-high full tosses and ugly half-trackers - such as he served up to Morris with 12 runs to defend against the Royals last week - are rarely going to fit the bill.
It was, to be fair, an exceptional outfield catch. A fast, flat flog to long-on from Chris Gayle, where Stokes plunged forward to scoop up the chance in both hands. Unfortunately, that has ended his IPL, and ruled him out of the two-Test series against New Zealand as well. He will need surgery on a broken finger, so there's not a lot to read into his subsequent three-ball duck after opening the Royals' run chase, except to say that at least he tried.
And the rest…
No game-time as yet for Jason Roy (Sunrisers Hyderabad), Dawid Malan (Punjab Kings), Liam Livingstone (Rajasthan Royals), Chris Jordan (Punjab Kings), Sam Billings (Delhi Capitals), and Jofra Archer (Rajasthan Royals). Archer has been cleared to resume training at Hove, after finger surgery and treatment on his right elbow, but there's no timeframe yet for his IPL comeback.