After a day lost to rain across the United Kingdom, the ICC World Cup 2019 warm-ups kicked back into action on Monday – and also saw results play to expectations for the first time in the tune-up week ahead of cricket’s showpiece event.
Pakistan had been beaten by Afghanistan, India had failed to arrive against New Zealand and Australia had got the better of England in three of the four completed games prior to this, but a breezy Aussie win over Sri Lanka and a rampant English performance against Afghanistan meant the script was in line with the form book.
Here’s what we can take away from the penultimate day of warm-up action before the main event commences on 30 May.
England can breathe again
Not because they lost their previous game and turned it around on Monday; the real turnaround – a desperately-needed one – happened on the fitness front.
By the end of their contest versus Australia on Saturday, England’s squad appeared to be falling like nine-pins; nearly half of the chosen XV were nursing some niggle/trouble or the other – the condition dire enough for assistant coach Paul Collingwood to be summoned on to the field as a substitute a day ahead of his 43rd birthday.
Jofra Archer was back bowling – effectively at that – after pulling up within two balls of coming on as a substitute for the injured Mark Wood against Australia; Wood, who had left the field owing to left ankle trouble, has been cleared to play the World Cup.
Fellow pacer Chris Woakes didn’t show any discomfort in bowling five unchanged overs with the new ball, while lead spinner Adil Rashid had no seeming cause for concern from a long-standing shoulder problem as he delivered an untroubled six overs.
Captain Eoin Morgan may have hoped to have a bat after suffering a ‘flake fracture’ to his left index finger, but if he was fit enough to be named in the 13 for the Afghan game, he’s probably good to go.
Maybe Murphy’s Law isn’t striking the ‘favourite’ English setup after all, and perhaps they will even get to call upon all their squad options come the opener against South Africa.
Afghanistan let morale slip
While no one is taking warm-ups too seriously except the trigger-happy Indian media, Afghanistan’s win over Pakistan on Friday, 24 May, was a certain shot in the arm to the youngest side at this ‘exclusive’ World Cup.
There was intensity on display through their successful pursuit of 263 against their neighbours that showed they aren’t here to make up the numbers, and the holding of nerves in an eventual last-over finish was sure to bolster their confidence going into their tournament opener against Australia on Saturday.
If that were to have been followed up by even a semi-competitive outing against the tournament favourites, the Afghans would have walked into the World Cup as the banana peel everyone wished to avoid.
Instead, they slipped themselves to perhaps undo the momentum. It took Mohammad Nabi’s 42-ball 44 from number eight and number 11 Dawlat Zadran’s enterprising 20 not out to help them to a face-saving 160 all out, but with England gunning those runs down for the loss of one wicket – and at a rate of nine per over – there was no positive for Afghanistan to take.
Jofra Archer’s quick, chin-music working over of their top-order (which was devoid of regular opener Mohammad Shahzad) may also have provided a tactical path to teams awaiting them.
SL: Backs to the wall, back to the future?
In the review of Sri Lanka’s first warm-up fixture, against South Africa on Friday, there was a mention of how two of their spin-bowling options are players who hadn’t featured in ODIs since the end of 2015 (before the World Cup tour began with a two-match series against Scotland) – that’s Jeevan Mendis and Jeffrey Vandersay.
Lahiru Thirimanne hadn’t been on a similar exile, having last been in the setup as recently as December 2017, but the last time he opened the batting for the Lankans was during the previous World Cup – and it wasn’t a bad move whatsoever, with the left-hander scoring 65 against New Zealand, 52 against Bangladesh and 139* against England.
Four years later, in a team severely unsure of its optimum combination, Thirimanne was fronted back up to the top of the order, and his returns (56 off 69 balls) were fairly solid coming as they did in the face of a disciplined Mitchell Starc-Pat Cummins opening act from Australia.
This particular move may be of some value, but are the Lankans in good stead continually going back to options from the distant past?
Sure, 2015 wasn’t a bad World Cup for them, but Thirimanne’s century against England was one of eight three-figure scores from Sri Lankan batsmen in the 2015 edition – and the other seven came from three batsmen called Kumar Sangakkara (4), Tillakaratne Dilshan (2) and Mahela Jayawardene (1). Without those stalwarts, going back in time is unlikely to prove very fruitful.
Australia spoilt for choice, all of a sudden
It was all pointing southwards just eight official matches ago for Australia. A final over defeat to India at Nagpur on 5 March had left the Aussies 2-0 down in the five-match series; at the point, they had won just four out of their last 26 ODIs, a period stretching back to the start of the 2017 Champions Trophy.
Not much in and around Australian cricket was safe from an inquest; question marks were being raised on any and almost every player making up the 50-over squad, and any and almost all tactics being tried out.
Look at them now.
The reigning champions will begin their title defense on the back of eight wins in their last eight ‘official’ ODIs, in addition to two wins in two warm-up games since embarking on the World Cup course.
What’s more, is they have a problem of plenty, or at least a selection headache, for various spots across the lineup – all three of Aaron Finch, David Warner and Usman Khawaja present a firm case to be opening the batting, and all three (given Finch’s status of captain), one would reckon, are absolute certainties in the XI; if one out of the trio has to bat at number three, there is further competition from Shaun Marsh, who has been Australia’s best batsmen through the troubled times of the last two years; Marsh, in turn, could also potentially dislodge one out of Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis, who would appear to be the two all-rounders slotting in at five and six in the order.
And this is before you’ve taken a look at the bowling stock.
Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins should be the first names on the sheet when fit; if Starc isn’t fit, there’s Jason Behrendorff as a straight swap; if Behrendorff makes the XI irrespective of Starc’s fitness, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Kane Richardson still remain in the fray for a potential berth.
Adam Zampa, as the best spin-bowling option, and Alex Carey, on account of being the sole ‘keeper in the squad, appear to be the only absolute certainties aside from the captain and the ex-leaders (Smith and Warner) – Australia’s major problem now is zeroing in on the best combination from all they have to choose from.
It’s a problem they would have gladly lapped up less than 90 days back.
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