“Lads, it’s Tottenham,” is a quote ingrained in Premier League folklore. It was Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager, who famously said this to his players ahead of a clash against fellow English club Tottenham Hotspur. Ferguson considered Tottenham a fragile opposition who his team would always have the psychological edge over.
Coming to the cricket, Australia were in shaky waters at the turn of the year, having won just two ODIs from 13 in 2018. At the start of the year, the trend continued as the men from Down Under lost four out of their first five ODIs. It appeared to be all doom and gloom. But a change in fortunes was just around the corner.
A 32-run win over India at Ranchi started a renaissance for the Australians, who came back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Men In Blue 2-3 in India. They carried on that momentum to the UAE, where they beat Pakistan 0-5. Eight wins on the trot after just three in the previous 18 changed the mood, and signalled that the defending World Cup champions were finding their feet again.
Then came the World Cup itself, where the Aussies eased into the semi-finals with seven wins and two losses. During Australia’s miserable run in 2018, England had beaten them nine times in 10 games, which included a 5-0 whitewash at home. But when the two sides faced each other at Lord’s (London) during the World Cup, Australia came out on top by 64 runs.
Like Ferguson had felt Manchester United had Tottenham’s number, you wonder if Australia believe they have a similar psychological edge over their rivals, especially in big matches. After all, it’s been 27 years since an England victory in this fixture at the World Cup.
During the league match, it was the Australian left-arm pace duo of Jason Behrendorff (5/44) and Mitchell Starc (4/43) who caused havoc. Chasing a target of 286, England were reduced to 53/4 and never fully recovered. But this time, it won’t be as easy for the Australian quicks with Jason Roy back.
The England batsman missed the games against Sri Lanka and Australia with a torn hamstring and the hosts lost both. Since returning, Roy’s quick-fire fifties have set the foundation for England victories in must-win encounters against India and New Zealand. The Surrey batsman’s return has also had a telling impact on opening partner Jonny Bairstow, who scored centuries in both those matches. Roy and Bairstow have, in fact, notched up century-stands in their last three partnerships.
Cricket is essentially a contest between bat and ball and the match-up of Roy and Bairstow against an Australian pace attack consisting of Starc, Behrendorff and Pat Cummins could be one for the ages.
BOOS NOT IMPACTING WARNER’S BATTING
During Australia’s final league match against South Africa, a section of the crowd, led by a Proteas fan, sang, “Hey, Warner, leave those balls alone” to the tune of Pink Floyd’s iconic Another Brick In The Wall. This was in keeping with the boos that have greeted the left-handed batsman this summer. Crowds, mostly English, have left no stone unturned to remind Warner of Sandpaper Gate, which had resulted in a year’s ban for the Aussie opener.
Warner has let his bat do the responding. Returning to the Australian ODI side for the first time since the ban, there were questions raised about his batting as he began the World Cup on a cautious note. Warner, whose neck or nothing style of batting earned him the sobriquet ‘The Bull’, was far from his aggressive self with bat or on the field. He was a changed batsman and a changed man – the only constant was that he keeps scoring runs.
Warner was the second highest run-scorer (638) in the league stage. With an average of 79.8, the 32-year-old has shown that the one year away from international cricket hasn’t diminished his ability to perform at the top level. If anything, it has only made him more determined.
Warner’s return has also reunited him with Finch at the top of the order, and the partnership has been pivotal in Australia’s success at the World Cup. The duo have put on 662 runs together at an average of 73.6, including three century-stands.
While England were revered for their batting exploits post the 2015 World Cup, there were doubts raised about the bowling. The inclusion of Barbados-born pacer Jofra Archer helped ease the problem. Archer has impressed the world with his pace in T20 leagues, and it was no surprise to see England draft him into the World Cup squad despite having featured in only three ODIs before the tournament.
Archer’s inclusion seems to have also helped fellow pacer Chris Woakes find his A-game. Since the start of 2018 and up until the World Cup, Woakes conceded at a little over 5 runs per over between overs 1-10. At the World Cup, it’s just 4.4. The Warwickshire lad’s opening spell against India was especially eye-catching, as he bowled three straight maidens at the start which put a massive dent in India’s chase before it could even get started.
An economy rate of 4.5 in the first 10 overs, the second best during the league stage, shows how the English bowlers have been able to apply the brakes on the opposition’s scoring early on.
But then there was the league match against Australia. The conditions at Lord’s were conducive to fast bowling with overcast skies and a pinch of green on the surface. Hence, when Eoin Morgan chose to bowl, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable call despite England having lost twice while chasing at the tournament previously.
The English bowlers, though, did not make good use of the conditions and handed the initiative to the Australians right away. They bowled shorter than the ideal length on such a wicket, with the vast majority of deliveries not even projected to hit the stumps. Warner and Finch didn’t have an easy time in the middle, but they survived. At the end of the first Powerplay, the score read 44/0 and it was Australia’s game to lose, which they did not.
Interestingly enough, England have failed to take a wicket in the first Powerplay just twice at this World Cup. The other opponent? Pakistan. Result? An England loss.
The Australian openers won the first battle against the English new ball bowlers. Will Warner and Finch make it 2-0 or will Woakes and Archer fight back? Let’s wait and watch.
BATTLE OF THE NUMBER THREES
Like Warner, Steve Smith has been at the receiving end of a chorus of boos during the World Cup. The captain of the Australian team during Sandpaper Gate, this is Smith’s first ODI adventure since the incident.
Unlike Warner, Smith hasn’t been able to stamp his authority on the tournament yet. By the Sydney-born batsman’s exceptional standards, 294 runs at an average of 32.7 in nine innings is hardly praiseworthy. This is, in all likeliness, a result of Smith being pushed down the order. He’s batted at his preferred number three position just twice in this tournament, with Usman Khawaja occupying that spot on most occasions.
With Khawaja’s hamstring injury ruling him out of the tournament, Smith will be back to his preferred spot. At number three, Smith averages 52.1 in ODIs. At four, he averages 35.6. An increase of 16.5 runs per innings is significant whichever way you look at it.
Smith returning to three will also renew his battle with England’s Joe Root. The duo have been long considered part of the ‘Fab Four’ of this generation along with India’s Virat Kohli and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson.
Root, unlike Smith, has had a superb World Cup – scoring 500 runs at an average of 62.5, and notching up two centuries. But the semi-final and the final, if England get there, could be what elevates him to Smith’s standing as a batsman. While Root has excelled in international cricket, Smith has always been at a level higher.
During the 2015 World Cup, it was Smith who delivered in the clutch moments for Australia, registering 50+ scores in the quarter-final, semi-final and the final. Root didn’t have that opportunity as England didn’t even make the knockouts.
A couple of years later, the 2017-‘18 Ashes saw Smith and Root up against each other – this time as captains. It was the Australian who came out on top, scoring 687 runs at an average of 137.4. The England star, on the other hand, managed 378 runs without a single century to his name. Australia won the series 4-0.
If there’s a place and time where the Yorkshire batsman could finally get one over Smith, it is right here and now. With home advantage on his side, will Root deliver?
GROUND AND WEATHER CONDITIONS
Edgbaston in Birmingham has the highest batting average (40.2) among all grounds at this World Cup. But it’s important to note that a 59-metre square boundary during the last two matches here helped it become a batting paradise. The pitch won’t be the same and as a result, that short boundary will not exist in this game, meaning scores are likely to go down.
Just like the first semi-final between India and New Zealand at Old Trafford in Manchester, this match is also expected to be affected by rain with thunderstorms forecast for Thursday afternoon in Birmingham.
With Usman Khawaja ruled out, Australia will be forced into making a change and coach Justin Langer has already confirmed that Peter Handscomb will be replacing the left-handed batsman. Marcus Stoinis is another injury worry, but is expected to be fit in time. There are whispers of Glenn Maxwell possibly being dropped for the game, with Matthew Wade being the replacement.
Aaron Finch (c), David Warner, Steve Smith, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell/Matthew Wade, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Lyon.
The hosts are unlikely to change a winning combination.
Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan (c), Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler (wk), Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood.