While Australia have already qualified for the World Cup semi-finals, two points against South Africa on Saturday night looms as a huge incentive.
An Aussie win in their final pool match will ensure a first-place finish, and a likely semi-final against New Zealand. Vitally, it allows them to avoid a semi-final with England after their overnight win against the Black Caps.
Should Aaron Finch’s side lose to the Proteas, however, and India defeat Sri Lanka as expected, they will drop to second and face England at a raucous Edgbaston – an intimidating venue where the hosts have won their last four ODIs.
Avoiding a dangerous England outfit isn’t the only carrot being dangled, too. The clash against South Africa is at Old Trafford which, as it transpires, is the same venue for the first semi-final.
As such, a win would ensure Australia can benefit from the familiarity of playing back-to-back games at the same ground. Further, it allows them to remain in Manchester, where they have been since the start of the week.
The double-barrelled incentive means there is little chance Australia will rest any players for Saturday’s game. Hypothetically, even if top spot was a cast-iron guarantee, selectors wouldn’t have afforded Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins a break anyhow.
By the time Saturday evening rolls around, it will have been a full seven days since the Aussies’ last game against New Zealand, which they won by 86 runs at Lord’s. As such the clash represents, if anything, an opportunity to remain fresh before the semi-final.
Having played the same XI in the past two games, it would appear unlikely the selectors will seek to change a winning formula. Should the pitch at Old Trafford be dry, there could be an argument to play Adam Zampa alongside now-preferred spinner Nathan Lyon. But in the interests of continuity – and maintaining a likely XI for the semi-final – Jason Behrendorff is likely to play again.
A constant source of debate on these pages, selection in Australian cricket – especially in ODIs – has been head-scratchingly curious in the last 18 months.
But in the interest of fairness, it’s important to note that in picking Lyon and Behrendorff, the selectors have got it spot on.
And when you consider the lifeline they threw Usman Khawaja earlier this year, plus the faith shown in Alex Carey, it has been a profitable few months for Greg Chappell, Trevor Hohns and Justin Langer.
Saturday’s game against South Africa also presents an ideal opportunity for out-of-form players to establish some confidence before the knockout stage.
Glenn Maxwell has at times looked dangerous this World Cup and is reportedly striking the ball as clean as ever, but the reality is he is yet to pass 50. An extended time at the crease – for Maxwell, that means anything in excess of 35 balls – would be welcome going into a semi-final.
On a more worrying level, Marcus Stoinis has made just 65 runs in five innings at a strike rate of less than 85. Currently holding up his end with the ball, Stoinis’ lack of explosiveness at the back-end of the innings cause for concern.
While reports suggests a strong sense of positivity emanating from the Australian camp, they won’t underestimate a South African side who beat them on home soil just eight months ago.
While it’s been a disappointing campaign for the Proteas, a nothing-to-lose mentality could be dangerous if their match-winners fire.
Finch and co know the incentive of a win, and will play with that firmly at the front of their minds.