Australia – Are they a chance at the World Cup?
A few short months ago, Australia had virtually been written off a World Cup hopeful. They were beaten 2-1 by South Africa on their home soil to start the summer, before going down 2-1 again, this time to India, to end the summer. Typically such a dominant team playing at home, these losses, albeit to good teams, suggested they would struggle to compete in England later in the year, even with the return of David Warner and Steve Smith.
They then headed to the sub-continent for a pair of five-game ODI series against first India, then Pakistan, and given how they had played in Australia just weeks prior, it seemed unlikely they'd be able to compete in foreign conditions, particularly against the might of the Indians. As expected, they lost the first two ODIs, their suspect batting lineup unable to put up the kind of total that could keep the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma at bay.
But then something changed. They won Game 3, chased down 358 to win Game 4, and clinched Game 5 to miraculously take out the series. They headed to Pakistan just a week later and promptly wiped the floor with the home side, sweeping them 5-0. Suddenly, Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja looked like the best opening duo in world cricket, Shaun Marsh couldn't stop scoring runs, Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis were packing a powerful lower order punch, Peter Handscomb was chipping in. Suddenly, it seemed like they didn't even miss Smith and Warner.
Of course, realistically Smith and Warner are two of the best batsmen in the world. Even if there were cries of their returns, particularly Warner's, being untenable a few months ago after the bizarre interviews of Smith and fellow conspirator Cameron Bancroft during the summer, it was only ever going to take the impending start of the World Cup to convince people otherwise. The prospect of the team performing poorly at an event which they have typically dominated was always going to be too much to bear to keep the two out of the team, and it was only going to take either disappointing team performances in the lead-up or Warner and Smith to score a few runs in the IPL to convince the general public, and the selectors, that they were required players.
As it happened, the former of those rapidly became a significantly smaller issue than expected, as Australia's previously brittle batting lineup transformed overnight into an unbeatable one. Some people would no doubt have seen that fact as reason enough to keep the former captain and vice-captain out of the team, but for the most part, it has caused people to imagine taking the best parts of this new look batting lineup, and adding two of the dominant players in the world to it.
And just in case anyone needed more convincing, Warner decided to take it upon himself to remind everyone of just how good he is. Ten games into the IPL he is the leading run scorer, and by some margin. His 574 runs is 129 more than his nearest rival. He has averaged 71.75 at a strike rate of 146.05, amassing seven half-centuries and a century – that's right, he's passed 50 in all but two of his ten games to date.
Smith, for his part, has been solid without being outstanding, averaging 49.16 (still a very impressive number in T20 cricket) at a strike rate of 116.60. But he had less convincing to do. His role in the ball-tampering saga was much less clearly defined than that of Warner – he was more a victim of inactivity rather than activity. And besides, he's a much more accomplished 50 over player than 20 over player, meaning the World Cup is far more his cup of tea than the IPL.
Now, their return to the side for the World Cup is all but certain. They've been named in the 15-man squad, dropping Peter Handscomb in the process, despite a number of impressive performances on the subcontinent by the man with arguably the most unusual technique in the world – with the exception, perhaps, of Smith himself.
Suddenly the Australian batting lineup is one to fear. The newfound deadly duo of Finch and Khawaja will presumably be broken up to make way for Warner, but that's hardly a problem. Khawaja could bat at three, with Smith at four and Marsh moved to five, or alternatively Finch could probably bat at three or five with Marsh at the other position.
A lethal top five, with all of them capable of putting together huge scores and seemingly in form, and if they don't, it doesn't get much easier for the opposition with Glenn Maxwell likely to follow. Stoinis, as impressive as he has been in recent months, might not be able to find room, with Alex Carey presumably coming in at seven as a wicketkeeper-batsman – testament to the newfound depth of the batting lineup.
With all this talk of batting, we've completely glossed over Australia's bowling stocks, but that hasn't been their problem in recent times. They've got Cummins and they've got Starc, two of the world's best fast bowlers and terrific exponents of the swinging ball which is always so prevalent in England. For the third spot they've got options – Jhye Richardson made a name for himself on the international stage over the summer, while Jason Behrendorff and Nathan Coulter-Nile are proven, reliable bowlers. And of course they've got Nathan 'Garry' Lyon, one of the best spinners in world cricket and Australia's best since Shane Warne.
This is a country which is accustomed to doing well at the World Cup. In fact, more so than that, it's a country which is accustomed to winning the event. The last World Cup saw them win in dominant fashion on their biggest stage, thrashing their cross-Pacific rivals, New Zealand, to the tune of seven wickets with 17 overs to spare at the MCG. The time before saw India win, but the three prior – 1999, 2003 and 2007 – saw the Aussies salute. They also won in 1987, giving them five wins in total and four of the last five. India and West Indies are the next best, having won two apiece.
It isn't a side which is accustomed to being out of the mix, but that's exactly where they seemed to be just a few short months ago. And the ICC ODI rankings still agree, at least to an extent, with the Australian ODI team ranked fifth in the world, behind New Zealand and South Africa and a long way back from India and England, who will likely pose their biggest threats.
India has a batting lineup capable of taking games away from teams in an instant, while England has star players all over and will have the home ground advantage. South Africa and New Zealand, too, are very competent sides, and could easily find themselves causing trouble in the latter stages of the tournament.
The odds, however, have something a little different to say. Unlike in the world rankings, the Aussies are pretty close to the top. England and India are deserved favourites, but loitering not far behind are the Australians, looking far more dangerous than they might have late last year.
A proud team, and a hugely successful one on this stage, many would have in their own minds written the Australians off as genuine threats long ago. But things have changed. The World Cup isn't easy to win, and the chances are Australia won't win it. But write them off at your own peril. The bookies certainly haven't.