For the winner, the prospect of a tournament lifeline, a chance to hold a route to the semi-finals in their own hands. For the loser, the mounting prospect of an early elimination: a disgraceful fate for the holders of each of the ICC’s two World Cup trophies. Even taking into account the threat of further rain-related twists and turns, two sputtering campaigns need urgent ignition if they are to regain ground so far lost – in Australia’s case to a crushing one-sided loss in their opening game against New Zealand, and in England, a strangely meek surrender in the squalls against Ireland at the same location. For their part, Australia will hope that ignition has already occurred. At the time of the resignation of Glenn Maxwell in the 13th over from their 158 run chase against Sri Lanka on Wednesday, they were a side with no direction as their NRR started drifting into double digits with Aaron Finch stuck in what he later admitted it was an “unusual” stroke of 31 not from 42 balls. But then Marcus Stoinis showed up with a devastatingly straight forward attack of range-hitting – and by the time he had scored an Australian record of 17 balls, all those doubts had been sent to the stands.
Stoinis hit six sixes during his 18-ball run against Sri Lanka – more than all his teammates had produced together in any of the first two games of the tournament in Australia, but also three times as many as England in total against Group 1’s supposed lesser lights , Afghanistan and Ireland. Alex Hales lumped Fazalhaq Farooqi in Perth, Moeen Ali thumped Gareth Delany in the same direction in Melbourne, three balls before the rain sealed England’s fate against the Irish…and that was that until now.
It’s a mind-boggling moment for Jos Buttler’s team to get over with firearms, especially given the free-spirited chaos they seemed to unleash in their warm-up week on these shores. Australia itself took the full weight of England’s power-hitting by conceding 208 to 6 in Perth at the start of the month, while Liam Livingstone’s six – clean from the Gabba in their exhibition game against Pakistan – were widely seen as a statement of intent from a deep and formidable batting lineup not known for dying of wonder in recent years. But what we have here instead is an unexpectedly reticent state of affairs. To a greater or lesser extent, the batter of both England and Australia has struggled for that fluid confidence in its constituent parts that epitomized their recent glory days. Buttler’s rare first layoff against Ireland can probably be written off as an aberration, but with his sidekick Hales having so far failed to repay confidence in his recall, and Ben Stokes at No. 4 a highly talked-about work-in-progress, the uncertainty was contagious. Dawid Malan has returned to his old anchor-man habits, with 53 runs from 67 balls so far, and while Moeen tried his hardest to tip the DLS calculations in England’s favor when the rain hit Ireland, the rigidity of England’s batting order was revealing. You feel that Eoin Morgan didn’t shy away from promoting his heavy artillery in an effort to get ahead of speed in difficult conditions, even if that would have meant risking getting all of them for 80 in the process. Buttler’s subsequent statement that “England must make it hurt” may have been a tacit admission that their campaign has not yet found the right level of emotional investment. Despite Stoinis’ exploits, Australia isn’t exactly in their happy place either. But if it rained in Canberra, England would have beaten them 3-0 in the recent T20I series – their eight-run consecutive wins were more extensive than the final margins suggested – while their camp has been haunted of late by the specter of Covid -19 days, with Adam Zampa missing the Sri Lanka match and Matthew Wade now also under the weather. An early exit for the defending champions on home soil wouldn’t be unprecedented for Australia – the same happened in 50-over cricket when they hosted the 1992 World Cup – but it would be a big deal nonetheless. Their survival may require a knockout against their oldest enemies, and vice versa. But for the victor, who knows what a boost to their sputtering campaign such a scalp would be.
Australia WLLLW (last five T20Is completed, most recent first)England LWWWW
Five matches (and a warm-up knockabout) into his T20I comeback, and there’s still no real clarity as to where Ben Stokes’ short-form play is located. A draw of 41 runs at 10.25 from 42 balls indicates a player still trying to get his eye back in, which – in the context of this game you need to win – is not the ideal pace for your crucial number .4. And yet Stokes’ many strings are manifesting themselves in the tournament in other ways so far – most notably in his unexpected but highly effective role as a new ball option. A catch of 3 for 27 in 6.2 overs is softened by the fact that the first (and seventh) overs are the most favorable for bowling, as batters tend to take a moment to gauge the conditions before heading to the hell go for leather. Nevertheless, during that period he made a miraculous stroke and expressed his personality in a way that was hitherto absent in his percussion. At some point you feel his all-round game will click back into place, but can England afford to wait for inspiration to strike? Much of the same can be said for Australia’s No. 4 Glenn Maxwell. Patience has become scarce in recent weeks, with Maxwell grounding his gears to get some traction, but to no avail. And yet, in successive matches against New Zealand and Sri Lanka, he just about threatens to stick his head out the other side. Scores of 28 out of 20 and 23 out of 12 are hardly proof of his renewed threat. But in every game, he scored as many boundaries (four) as he’d managed in nine completed innings since June, and against Sri Lanka in particular, he provided the spark that Australia’s chase desperately needed ahead of the rampant finish of Stoinis. Like Stokes, his value extends beyond the runs he offers. Dasun Shanaka’s timely wicket in his only over on Wednesday was a key factor in cramping Sri Lanka’s ambitions. these two games, and the fact that another exciting high octane couldn’t deliver the win his team craved. However, indications from head coach Matthew Mott are that England will draft an unchanged squad – meaning Chris Woakes will be making another appearance on his return from a long-term injury, and Hales will once again be trusted at the top of the rankings, despite Phil Salt’s claims to a starting place.
England (probably): 1 Jos Buttler (capt & wk), 2 Alex Hales / Phil Salt, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Liam Livingstone, 6 Harry Brook, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Sam Curran, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood.
Zampa’s recovery from Covid means he will likely replace Ashton Agar as Australia’s only change from their Sri Lankan line-up. Wade is poised to keep his place behind the stumps despite his own Covid diagnosis.
Australia (probably): 1 Aaron Finch (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Mitchell Marsh, 4 Glenn Maxwell, 5 Marcus Stoinis, 6 Tim David, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Adam Zampa , 11 Josh Hazlewood.
The surface of the MCG proved snappy in the moisture on Wednesday, and overall it’s a long way from the reach of stodgy drop-in pitches that had given cricket a bad name there in recent years. Either way, the deciding factor threatens to come from above again. More grim weather is on the way, and this could be another case of shower dodging and DLS negotiations.
“I don’t feel any more pressure than ever. The only pressure is the expectation you place on yourself.” Australian captain Aaron Finch is not worried about his form going into the game against England.
“If you needed a game to stand up for – a game to win – England and Australia at the MCG are definitely one of them.” England captain Jos Buttler believes his team will go for the big occasion.