Defending champions Australia open their campaign on Saturday, 1 June, against Afghanistan.
The ICC team ODI rankings as of the 10th of March have Australia on 102 points, equal with Pakistan.
The sides above us are England (123), India (121), New Zealand and South Africa equal on 112. So depending how you look at it, we’re fifth or sixth. On paper, that’s a massive gap between Australia and the top two sides who, until recently, had been considered most likely to play in the World Cup final.
A scan of the betting for the World Cup has England favourite at about 5/2, followed by India at about 3/1, then Australia at about 5 or 6/1. Australia is also favourite with some bookies to at least make the final. This begs the question, what’s changed and who’s right?
Less than two months ago, India minus the best ODI bowler in the world crushed Australia at home in two games, winning by margins of six and seven wickets. Fast forward to the past two weeks and this Australian side has almost beaten India in one game and comprehensively beaten them in another two – and that’s with India playing Jasprit Bumrah.
The side from a couple of months ago is not greatly different from this team, but the inclusion of a fit and confident Pat Cummins has made a huge difference to the team. The other bowler who’s made a massive difference is Adam Zampa. He showed in the last Sydney ODI game that the Indians were treating him with respect (10 overs 0-34) and that can only have increased his confidence, which is why he’s done such a good job in this series.
Aaron Finch has shown confidence in Maxwell’s bowling and been rewarded and Jhye Richardson continues to impress, with Marcus Stoinis holding his own and Nathan Lyon not doing a lot wrong.
The other obvious key factor is the confidence the batting unit is displaying at present. Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb are probably the standouts, but each guy (with the exception of Mitch Marsh) has contributed significantly with the bat at least once in the series.
This team has clearly shown it can beat the world’s best without having two of its best players in the team.
The bans on Steve Smith and David Warner are nearly up, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are apparently progressing well from their injuries, so there is now a genuine debate about who should be included in touring party – or rather, who is going to be the unlucky one to be left out.
The other major confidence boost for Australia came from the indifferent ODI form shown by England in the West Indies. This was a series most pundits would have expected the English to win fairly comfortably but some of their efforts, with both bat ball, were pretty ordinary.
If some equally indifferent form by New Zealand (easily beat both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but were crushed by India) and South Africa (just getting past Pakistan in South Africa) is included in the mix, perhaps the bookies have it right and Australia is a genuine chance.
On the other hand, Finch’s batting form is a huge concern. The flow-on effects to the captaincy role are obvious if he doesn’t come good and that puts the selectors in a serious bind.
Smith and Warner will come back, but what sort of ODI form will they be in? The selectors can only take so much from watching these guys play in the IPL, so both have lots to prove in the leadup games to the 1st of June. Ditto for Starc and Hazlewood who, if they don’t play, leaves us with a very inexperienced ODI attack.
The same could be said for the rest of the batting line-up, which is largely untested in English conditions and has proven fragile at best against the moving ball. It’s easy to ignore or forget how ordinary our Test batsmen were made to look by Bumrah and co and England, South Africa and New Zealand all have guys fully capable of doing exactly the same in English conditions, not to mention Pakistan.
We’ve also demonstrated an inability to regularly score over 300, which could come back to bite us, unless we remedy the situation in the coming weeks.
The one factor which could tip the scales either way is momentum. Right now, there’s a bunch of guys playing some excellent, confident ODI cricket. They need to maintain this same approach in the next series against Pakistan and carry it over to the preliminary World Cup games.
If momentum is lost, this close to the Cup, I can’t see Australia having time to regain i’s mojo, not when there are so many good teams. However, if Australia stays on a roll I might be sorry I didn’t take the 6/1.