What a difference a week can make. Earlier in March, the Australian men’s team was a mess in One-Day International cricket, having lost 22 of its previous 26 matches, and having not won a series since 2017.
No one was expecting the Australians to suddenly win three games in a row in India, recording a rare comeback win from 2-0 down to claim a five-match series.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Now an almost unchanged Australian squad is in the United Arab Emirates, full of confidence in preparing to take on Pakistan.
It’s a big chance for Australia to record some better memories of the UAE. The last trip was only recent. In October 2018, Australia’s Twenty20 side struggled past the local UAE team in a one-off match, then was whitewashed by Pakistan 3-0.
That was the start of Aaron Finch’s captaincy of Australia’s limited-overs teams, and the start of his struggles with the bat. After a hot streak for Australia and in English domestic cricket, when he was making white-ball hundreds for fun, suddenly he couldn’t score a run.
He did manage to make 93 in the third recent match against India in Ranchi, helping to set up the first of Australia’s turnaround wins, but he also made two ducks in the series. Out of his last 21 white-ball innings for Australia, he’s been out in single figures 13 times, with five ducks.
But the captain is the only form concern for Australia right this second. Usman Khawaja has been a revelation after years of not getting much opportunity in the ODI team and not making the most of it when it came. Finally he made his first one-day century for Australia, and backed it up with a second and very nearly a third. His series against India ran 50, 38, 104, 91, 100, an even higher tally than Virat Kohli with two centuries of his own.
Shaun Marsh only played three matches, but was the only player in form for Australia before this series, having knocked off four ODI centuries in the space of eight matches against South Africa, England and India. He had a horror Test tour of the UAE back in October but a change for format could bring a change of fortunes. Marsh can bat through an innings, and is the perfect candidate to slot in at first drop behind Finch and Khawaja.
Peter Handscomb has also proved his worth at number four, as a player who can also bed in for a long innings but can do so at a high strike rate with minimal risk. He also made his first ODI century this month in India by taking a positive approach against spin and working the field relentlessly, then bringing out his power hitting later in the match. Handscomb can also keep wicket if that helps team balance.
Australian selectors are also taking the idea of playing two spinners more seriously, after years of preferring a pace-heavy attack. Twice in India the Australians defended chaseable totals, and once when India looked set for a monster total around 400, Australia pulled them back to 358 and managed to chase that score themselves. Each time, Australia’s spinners were key.
Leg-spinner Adam Zampa has never had a consistent run in the team despite some excellent performances earlier in his carer, and has struggled at times more recently when perhaps being supported would have yielded better results. In India he grabbed 11 wickets in the series and controlled the run rate to be a vital part of each win.
Nathan Lyon has been the first-choice Test spinner for years but has never been backed in the shorter format for Australia. He missed the first two matches against India but played in all of Australia’s wins, where he controlled the middle overs at an economy rate of 4.43 while also taking three wickets.
As for the fast bowlers, Patrick Cummins had just won the Allan Border medal for Australia’s best player across all formats over the last year, and he showed why in India with 14 wickets at an average of 15. Nathan Coulter-Nile and Jhye Richardson backed him up with some high speeds, and all three contributed at times with the bat.
Australia’s scoring acceleration is offered by Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis, though the new boy Ashton Turner has proved that he can offer the same, after he looted 84 from 43 balls to finish off the huge chase in Mohali.
As for Pakistan, they also enter this series on the back of good results, unlucky to lose a one-day tour to South Africa 3-2 after piling up 317 in a match awarded to South Africa by rain calculations. But the notion of momentum is largely theoretical with eight changes to that squad as players are rested after the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and before the run-up to the World Cup.
Recent key batsmen in Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman will sit out, as will wicket-keeper and captain Sarfraz Ahmed, fast bowlers Hasan Ali and Shaheen Shah Afridi, and spinning all-rounder Shadab Khan. The veteran all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez injured his thumb in the PSL, while Hussain Talat was left out.
This means Shoaib Malik will lead a new-look side with Abid Ali and Haris Sohail looking to fill the batting gap, and a return to international cricket for controversial outcast Umar Akmal. Plenty will rest on opener Imam-ul-Haq who was a standout in South Africa: he made winning contributions to the first and fourth matches with innings of 86 and 71, interspersed by a century in the third match. He was probably too invested though in showing up his critics, greeting the hundred with an emotional display followed by a poor shot to get out.
Imad Wasim will also shoulder a leadership burden, with his early bowling so important to controlling the tempo of an innings, and his ability to clout late runs important for setting totals.
Usman Shinwari will be on a high after leading a recent rout of South Africa for 164, while Mohammed Amir has five more matches to find form after struggling mightily in the 50-over format. Junaid Khan also gets another chance with the ball, while Mohammad Rizwan gets a chance as wicket-keeper.
Interestingly, a couple of bowlers are included who have previously been marked as Test specialists, but who gave Australia nightmares in the longest format during that tour last October. Leg-spinner Yasir Shah is back for the first time since 2018, while the revelatory seamer Mohammad Abbas gets his first chance in a limited-overs format for Pakistan.
There’s plenty at stake for all concerned, with the chance to lock in a World Cup spot with a strong performance. There’s equally the risk that a poor performance might give selectors an excuse to leave someone out, even if that’s not really justified from such a small sample size. An Australian team trying to find its way, and a Pakistan team with a totally new composition – it should be compelling.
Pakistan: Shoaib Malik (c), Abid Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Haris Sohail, Imad Wasim, Imam-ul-Haq, Junaid Khan, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Saad Ali, Shaan Masood, Umar Akmal, Usman Shinwari, Yasir Shah.
Australia: Aaron Finch (c), Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Marcus Stoinis, Ashton Turner, Adam Zampa.