Are we heading into the final stages of Eoin Morgan's England captaincy?
Morgan was so quick to confirm his desire to stay on after the T20 World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand in Abu Dhabi that his future has hardly been raised. "I'm still offering enough to the side," he said in the post-match presentation; Chris Silverwood, England's coach, later revealed that Morgan had been making plans for the 2022 tournament on the team bus back to Dubai after that defeat.
But Morgan's absence from the final three games of England's series in Barbados - he has been ruled out through a minor quad injury - does beg the question. He turns 36 in September, a month before the T20 World Cup in Australia, and Jos Buttler - his heir presumptive - is at a natural inflexion point in his career with his Test future in doubt.
Morgan's batting has reached a point where it is increasingly difficult to justify his place in England's middle order. Since the start of 2021, he has averaged 16.36 with a strike rate of 108.43 for England. It is still a relatively small sample size, but the evidence at domestic level has been not better: across 28 innings for Middlesex, London Spirit and Kolkata Knight Riders, he has averaged 18.13 with a strike rate of 118.13.
Morgan has always been a streaky player. His peaks and troughs have been extreme across a 15-year T20 career, and the volatility of middle-order batting in T20s - particularly since he shuffled down from No. 4 to No. 5 or 6 - has created what Buttler called "a myth" around Morgan's form. "I think the longer you go without contributing a significant score, the closer you are to actually contributing - and that's coming from experience," Morgan said before the World Cup.
And it was not long ago that Morgan was in the best hitting form of his career. In 2019 and 2020, he averaged 40.71 with a strike rate of 158.32 in T20 cricket, the third-highest in the world behind Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard among those who batted 40 times or more. At 5.25 crore (£560,000 at the time) he was one of the bargains of the auction for the 2020 IPL.
But his recent run has been a tough watch. There have been occasional glimmers of form - five sixes in a Hundred game at The Oval, a cool-headed finish in the IPL and a late swing for victory at Old Trafford - but for the most part it has been a struggle, as highlighted by his only real innings of note for England: 40 off 36 balls on a slow, low Sharjah pitch, playing second fiddle to an extraordinary century from Buttler.
His performances in Barbados continued the trend, with 30 runs off 41 balls across his two innings. In the first, he came in at 10 for 3 and missed the first six balls he faced in a maiden from Jason Holder, eventually scoring off his ninth ball thanks to a thick edge. The pitch was tough, but much flatter in the second game, when he picked out long-off for 13 off 12 balls - and then dropped two catches, one of them straightforward, during West Indies' run chase.
Perhaps all he needs is a break. Morgan's schedule in the last year has been relentless: India tour, IPL (first half), isolation at home, T20 Blast, England's home summer, yet more isolation, the Hundred, a short break, IPL (second half), World Cup, Abu Dhabi T10. He admitted towards the end of the Hundred that he was exhausted, and opted against playing in the BBL or PSL either side of this tour in favour of time off.
"The break for every player, coach and support staff gets more necessary with all the restrictions around Covid," he told The Cricketer magazine last month. "If I've ever gone through a rough patch and had the chance to take a break from it, I've always put the bat down and gone and enjoyed the rest for what it is." Depending on February's IPL auction - where he has a base price of Rs. 1.5 crore (£150,000) - he may yet get a longer break than anticipated.
As for Morgan's captaincy? It is impossible to put a value on the intangibles of leadership but there have been the first hints of cracks appearing. Morgan said at the toss in the first T20I that he was hoping to bat first, having chosen to bowl 23 times in a row dating back to September 2016 - a tacit admission that his insistence on chasing had been a factor in England making a par score of 166 for 4 in November's semi-final defeat when their batting-heavy strategy and the conditions meant they needed more.
Their death bowling has been poor for a while. Morgan was widely given credit for his calming influence on Jofra Archer in the Super Over in the 50-over World Cup final in 2019, having learned from Ben Stokes' nightmare in Kolkata three years earlier; but that same influence could not stop Chris Jordan (twice), Chris Woakes and Saqib Mahmood all conceding 20 or more runs in a single death over during Morgan's last three T20Is.
What would England's limited-overs set-up look like without Morgan? Phil Salt's assertive debut half-century on Wednesday, out of position at No. 6, underlined the depth of talent in England's T20 batting. Buttler is an inexperienced captain, but Morgan's implementation of a signalling system with Nathan Leamon, the white-ball analyst, has made him replaceable. It is often assumed that Morgan would move to a coaching or mentoring role, but he may prefer to spend his thirties cashing in on the franchise circuit - or spending time out of the game altogether.
Morgan's legacy as England's greatest-ever white-ball captain is already secure and has been reinforced by the depth of talent coming through the ranks under his watch. With a men's ICC event scheduled for each of the next 10 years - including the defence of England's 50-over title in 2023, by which stage he will be 37 - there is no perfect time for Morgan to step down. But it feels increasingly like this winter's World Cup is his natural endpoint.