Under-par Australia overachieve with fab four

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12 Jul 2019 | 02:02 PM
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Shubh Aggarwal

Under-par Australia overachieve with fab four

Australia lost a World Cup semifinal for the first time in its history

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“Plenty of positives for us in this World Cup given where we were last year when we came here,” said Australian skipper Aaron Finch after Australia lost a World Cup semifinal for the first time in its history. Finch was referring to the whitewash Australia suffered when they toured England last year for a 5-match ODI series.

2018 was a year of turmoil in Australian cricket. They did not win a single ODI series and managed to win only 15.3 percent of their ODI games. But things changed heading into 2019. After being defeated in an ODI series against India at home in January, Australia surprised everyone by defeating the same side in their  backyard before going on to beat Pakistan.

Everything seemed to be falling in place. The Aussies had taken their win percentage from 15.3 in 2018 to 69.2 in 2019 (before the World Cup). From an Aussie side that was deprived of their most powerful players in Steve Smith and David Warner, they now had more than one player for each position. In fact, there were discussions around whether Smith and Warner were even required for Australia’s campaign.

They were now in everyone’s probable top four list and showed they meant business from the moment they stepped on the field. Mitchell Starc running through Mohammad Shahzad’s defense in the first over of Australia’s opening game against Afghanistan was a reminder of how he cleaned up Brendon McCullum in the 2015 World Cup final.

Finch and Warner reunite at the top

The Aussie resurgence was led by their batsmen, specifically by their opening pair. In an agonizing 2018, Australia had an average opening stand of 36.1 runs per wicket. From Jan 1, 2019 till the start of the World Cup, it ascended to 53.4 runs per wicket with Aaron Finch finding form alongside a solid Usman Khawaja. In the 2019 World Cup, it further increased to 64.1 runs per wicket with both Finch and Warner firing from either end.

Finch made 507 runs in the tournament while Warner amassed a staggering 647 runs. The opening pair marked their name in the history books as the only pair of batsmen to score over 500 runs in a World Cup edition from the same side. For five games in a row, Australia did not concede a wicket in the first 10 overs of their innings, and won on each of those five occasions.

Underwhelming middle-order

If Aussies had one of the most prolific opening pairs in this World Cup, their middle-order was found wanting for consistency.

Australia’s middle-order muddle can be attributed to two factors: the continuous swapping of batting positions between Steve Smith and Usman Khawaja, and the under-par batting displays of Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell.

Khawaja is primarily an opening batsman who enjoyed facing the new ball in Warner’s absence, whose comeback meant that Khawaja had to bat at three. That is also the most favorable batting position of Smith. This raises the question - should Smith and Khawaja be playing in the same XI?

The Australian management used this situation to employ the right and left handed batting strategy. Whenever Australia lost a wicket post the first powerplay - which was the case for five successive games in the middle of the league stage - Smith walked in to replace Finch and Khawaja was the new man in case Warner departed first. The Bangladesh game was an exception during this period, in which Warner and Khawaja batted together to counter Shakib Al Hasan left-arm orthodox spin.

As a result, Smith batted at number three in only three games and at number four in six. His best batting performances came in the game against West Indies when Australia was 79 for 5 and in the semifinal against England, when his side was down to 27 for 3 in 10 overs. In both games, he was in early and played the anchor’s role batting throughout the middle-overs. Smith, inarguably, is one of Australia’s biggest assets with the bat, irrespective of the format.

Here comes another question: in their will to employ the right and left handed batting combination strategy, did Australia miss out on using their best batsman to full potential? To put more perspective to this argument, Smith averages 52.7 while batting at three in his ODI career in comparison to 35.6 at four.

The underwhelming performance of Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell, who came in to the World Cup with great promise also hurt Australia. 

Alex Carey, batting at 7, was the lifeline of Australia’s failing middle-order and easily the biggest positive from Australia’s campaign. Only 19 ODIs old before the tournament, Carey scored 375 runs at an average of 62.5, the highest tally of runs by a wicket-keeper batsman. It was a gargantuan performance by a player who was yet to prove himself at international level, and had players like Jos Buttler and Quinton de Kock to compete with. His brave effort of batting with a bandage around his jaw in the semifinal was a reminder of the grit required to play sports at this level.

Starc, the one man army:

In terms of bowling, the Australian bowlers took 76 wickets in the World Cup, the second most amongst all participating sides, but were largely dependent on Mitchell Starc. Australia’s second most successful bowler in this World Cup was Pat Cummins with 14 scalps, almost half of Starc’s total of 27 wickets.

Often, especially against West Indies, Australia seemed like losing the grip of the game when Starc was taken off the attack. He bowled 38 spells in total and took at least one wicket in 17 of those. It was only the games against India, South Africa and the semifinal against England where Starc seemed off colour, and Australia finished on the losing side in all those three games.

In comparison, Pat Cummins bowled only 12 wicket-taking spells out of the total 36 spells he bowled. He was Australia’s most economical bowler (4.95 runs per over) but was nowhere close to his wicket-taking ability. 

Spinners failed to sparkle

Spinners were the biggest disappointment of an otherwise great Australian campaign. Yes, it was a tournament dominated by pace bowlers, but the Aussies spinners did not do enough to support the pacers. 

The spinners neither contained runs nor did they take wickets. Once their spinner Adam Zampa proved ineffective, Australia moved to their defensive spinner Nathan Lyon, whose performance can be termed as ‘not as disappointing as Zampa’ at best. Glenn Maxwell didn’t take a single wicket, despite bowling 294 balls in the tournament.

In a bowling unit in which the three options for the third seamer’s spot - Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jason Behrendorff and Kane Richardson - do not possess the experience of 100 ODIs combined and the fourth seamer is a batting all-rounder in Marcus Stoinis, the role of the spinners is exaggerated.

New Zealand has displayed the blueprint of a perfect bowling line-up in this tournament. Wicket-taking fast bowlers with the new ball in Trent Boult and Matt Henry, wicket-taking fast bowlers with the older ball in Lockie Ferguson and James Neesham and a fine spinner to support them by controlling the flow of runs in Mitchell Santner.

As discussed earlier, Australia has taken 76 wickets in the tournament, but its mediocre support bowlers have also been cruelly exposed.

Given that Australia made it to the top 4 in searing fashion (five victories in a row during the league stage beating even the eventual finalists England and New Zealand), it is very easy to overlook the chinks in their armor.

They were largely dependent on four individuals, Aaron Finch and David Warner at the top, Steve Smith in the middle and Mitchell Starc with the ball. The games in which three of them failed to make an impact where when Australia seemed flat, the biggest example of which was seen in the semifinals. Finch and Warner were dismissed in the first five overs and Starc was creamed for 70 runs in his nine overs.

Australia can still be proud of their effort coming on the back of a turbulent couple of years, but they also go away knowing there is a lot of rebuilding to be done if their ODI side is to attain a measure of former greatness.

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