ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: From Steve Smith's return to form to pitches defying presumptions, lessons learnt from England-Australia warm-up

  • Yash Jha
  • May 26th, 2019
  • 11:37:20 IST

We thought the World Cup will just come along, and the two favourites will sail their way into a 1-vs-2 final, and everything will go by the formbook.

Yes, it's only practice matches. Yes, teams are only warming up for the big one, quite literally.

But the first four of the 10 officially allocated warm-up games ahead of the ICC World Cup 2019 have thrown up three results against the odds: after Afghanistan got the better of Pakistan on Friday, 24 May, England and India — tournament favourites — suffered losses of varying degrees to Australia and New Zealand, respectively, on Saturday, 25 May.

Australia's Steve Smith smashed 116 off 102 balls against England. Reuters

Australia's Steve Smith smashed 116 off 102 balls against England. Reuters

While no one in their right minds will either burn or bask in the aftermath of a glorified practice session, certain developments on the field are sure to arrest any and all notions of this World Cup playing to expectations.

Here's some of what could be gathered from Australia's victory over England at Southampton.

The curse of an English World Cup bid

Through the 2000s, the English football team was always billed as a contender ahead of every marquee tournament. This was the period of their 'Golden Generation', the time they could call upon a midfield that read Beckham-Scholes-Lampard-Gerrard, with an Owen-Rooney forward line to boot.

But we know how that worked out for them.

Invariably, one of the golden boys (if not more), would be ruled out of the reckoning at the eleventh hour.

What's happening with the English cricket team now?

For the first time in at least a quarter of a century, they're entering a cricket World Cup as top contenders — they're at home, they're on song, they're redefining the boundaries of the format.

Given the years of emotional baggage, you were just hoping, as an English fan, for a quiet lead-up to the competition, a no-frills campaign, a curse-free summer.

Cut to the Ageas Bowl for their first warm-up game.

Paul Collingwood, one of England's assistant coaches, who last played an international game in 2011. Who called time on an extended domestic career nearly a year ago. Who turns 43 on Sunday took the field as a substitute!

That's because Mark Wood felt "discomfort" in a historically dodgy left foot after delivering his 19th ball of the day and went off the field, following which Jofra Archer — one of only two exponents of 145 kmph+ bowling in the English squad alongside, you guessed it, Wood — sustained a strain within two balls of coming on as a surprise substitute fielder (he is learnt to be carrying a minor niggle in his leg), following which Liam Dawson — their back-up spinner/all-rounder — split the skin on his right palm from an awry throw from the deep.

Oh, and FYI, captain Eoin Morgan had been ruled out of this warm-up after suffering a 'flake fracture' in his left index finger on Friday, main spinner Adil Rashid has carried a long-standing shoulder injury into the World Cup, and bowling spearhead Chris Woakes was kept away from bowling against Australia in a bid to manage recurring knee troubles.

Good Lord, Murphy!

Right about now is when Team England is wishing for the newfound fortune of their footballing brethren to pass on to them as well; the Three Lions, last summer, had their best World Cup since 1990. Will fate allow Morgan and Co to have their best since 1992? Or ever?

They're back! (In case you were wondering)

No one had any doubts as to which David Warner was coming for the World Cup following his exploits during the IPL, where he topped the run-scoring charts despite missing nearly one-fourth of the competition. With Steven Smith, the expectations were a little less definitive. His runs for Rajasthan Royals, while not limited, were not the most free-flowing. His troubled elbow, it was felt, might be better preserved for the Ashes to follow the World Cup.

But the runs are beginning to flow for the man who was a run-machine before being caught in the sands of time.

Smith had hit an 82-ball 76 in an 'unofficial' warm-up against West Indies upon Australia's arrival in England, which had followed another half-century in another 'unofficial' tune-up back home against a makeshift
New Zealand side. Now, in the first of two 'official' warm-ups (let the ICC explain the notion of what's official and unofficial in games of cricket that are, rulebook wise, unofficial!), he marshalled the Australian batting effort with a stroke-laden 116 off 102 balls.

None of these runs go into his record books, but only a select few of his recognised runs from the past would have been as morale-boosting for the former Aussie skipper as these efforts from the past fortnight.

The Southampton century had the added bonus of coming in the face of rampant, targeted derision from the partisan English crowd — a factor Australia have admitted they are ready for through the summer.

Australia's bowling puzzle: quite the maze

Jason Behrendorff was the pick of the Australian bowlers on Saturday. He returned figures of 8-1-43-2, with the two wickets being those of the dangerous Jonny Bairstow and the well-set James Vince. But the left-arm seamer, one would expect, is possibly the back-up to Mitchell Starc depending on the spearhead's fitness (unless the Aussies decide to go with multiple left-armers like they did in 2015).

Nathan Coulter-Nile, with his array of cutters and variations, could be expected to serve as Australia's stifling pacer; he went for 23 in three new-ball overs, and then, returning in the face of the sternest test in limited overs cricket today — a marauding Jos Buttler — was spanked for 24 in one over. He recovered with two tidy overs immediately, but the overall figures read an unflattering 6-0-61-1.

Nathan Lyon could be expected to play back-up to the wrist-spin of Adam Zampa, but here's how the offie went today: first five overs (between overs 14 and 23), unchanged, for 22 runs with the scalp of Ben Stokes; next three, between overs 28 and 32 (bowling to Buttler, Vince and Moeen Ali), for just seven runs; the last two, bowled in the final 10 overs (to an English lower-order that was upping the ante), for eight.

Kane Richardson is firmly believed to be the fifth of the five out-and-out pacers in the Aussie XV; he returned the prized breakthrough of Jason Roy, before coming back to get Tom Curran at the death, while keeping the run-flow in check (9-0-51-2).

The make-up of the Aussie bowling attack, in terms of the playing XI, is perhaps the most difficult prediction to make ahead of this World Cup. Southampton hasn't made that puzzle any less puzzling.

What pitches will we really see?

In line with pre-tournament expectations being refuted in the warm-ups, didn't the surfaces on offer on Saturday go against the idea of this being the World Cup where 350 will be the norm, and 500 might be breached?

At The Oval, the ball seamed and swung and spoke as a Trent Boult-inspired New Zealand bowled India out for 179. At the Ageas Bowl, the second innings saw a stop-start, two-paced wicket, which managed to stem even the blazing English bats.

Again, and this cannot be emphasized enough — these are only warm-ups.

But could there be more (or less, in this case?) to the tracks than the world has taken as a given leading into this summer? If so, it will take a brave soul to call the 2019 World Cup!

Updated Date: May 26, 2019 11:37:20 IST

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