Big picture: Can England spoil Australia’s semi-final push?
Suffice it to say, this is not the occasion it was earmarked to be. England versus Australia at the back-end of the group stages, at the most grandiloquent venue that this World Cup can offer. This was intended, at the very least, to be a shoot-out for the semi-finals, and maybe even a dress rehearsal for an even more significant showdown at this same venue further down the line.
And long, long ago, when Australia were the team sitting rock-bottom of the World Cup standings after back-to-back losses to South Africa and India, England might even have assumed that this would be their opportunity to land the final smackdown on their oldest foes.
How the worm has turned since then. Australia have gone on to win four from four, while it’s England who have spent the past fortnight circling the drain. Somehow, they go into this contest with a 0.4% chance of reaching the knock-outs – but the fact that they aren’t dead yet despite five losses in six only goes to show how loaded towards the established teams this format really is.
And yet, there’s still an awful lot at stake for both sides – and it’s not simply a matter of pride on England’s part. Last week’s shock revelation, that the final placings in this group stage will determine the participants for the 2025 Champions Trophy, means there’s still more humiliation to come if England cannot somehow scramble their way from tenth to eighth in the table.
As for Australia, it won’t be entirely plain-sailing into the semis if they drop the ball now. A pumped-up Afghanistan lie in wait in their next round (and they look set to be level on points by the end of their ongoing clash with the Netherlands) while a late-charging Pakistan offer another unexpected top-four challenge, albeit their own a clash with fourth-placed New Zealand will mean two points dropped by one rival or the other.
Very different degrees of jeopardy are at play therefore, but as tends to be the case in Anglo-Australian World Cup clashes, the immediate tournament context is sure to be rolled into the wider, wilder, narrative of an ancient and implacable rivalry.
And for the most recent installment, you don’t need to dredge too far into the memory banks. Up to 15 of the 22 players on parade in Ahmedabad on Saturday will have played their part in an Ashes for the ages in the English summer just gone, and with that series locked at 2-2 – amid talk of moral victories on the one hand and disdain for the “Bazball” narrative on the other – it won’t take much for this rematch to be dressed up as a de facto decider.
Certainly, the near-messianic sense of purpose that encapsulated England’s Test summer has deserted them since the switch from red- to white-ball cricket, and speaking in Dharmasala last week, Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, visibly struggled to choke down his mirth when asked to comment on his rival’s plight.
He’s had rather less to smile about in an uncomfortable build-up to this match. Glenn Maxwell, the recent compiler of the fastest century in World Cup history, is out of contention after his freakish golf injury (why always golf? How do actual professional golfers not suffer these endless on-course mishaps?), while Mitchell Marsh’s return to Perth for family reasons is an untimely disruption after his richly productive role in the top three.
In David Warner and the fit-again Travis Head, Australia still boast a pair of openers with three times as many centuries as England’s entire line-up has contributed across six matches – and the confidence that they will be able to project in the powerplay could yet be crucial.
England, however, will enter this match with judgment swirling around their misfiring troops – and David Willey’s impending international retirement is a reminder, too, that stages such as these don’t present themselves forever in the cut-throat world of professional sport. There’s no time like the present, therefore, for the still-just-about-reigning World Champions to serve a reminder of their ability. Especially if, in the process, they can make their arch-opponents’ progress that little bit less serene.
Form guide: Australia on a hot streak, England less so
Australia WWWWL (last five completed ODIs, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Joe Root and Adam Zampa
Speaking in the build-up, Joe Root insisted that, “man for man”, England are still a better team than Australia. However, his caveat, “when we play our best stuff” might as well have been a deeply self-referential comment. Root is not the only senior player to have suffered a collapse in form in this most desperate of campaigns, but his downturn still feels the most surprising, because he’s never really done peaks and troughs in the course of his formidable career. Remember when his failure to convert endless Test fifties into hundreds was the single biggest gripe about his record? Right now, England’s most stealthy run-accumulator is unable even to get out of the powerplay – in 16 ODIs since the start of 2022, he’s been dismissed eight times in the first ten overs, for a total of 33 runs from 72 balls, which are unsustainable figures by the standards of any international No.3, let alone one of England’s very greatest.
In their former guise as ODI world-beaters, England would almost certainly have considered Adam Zampa and marked man. They never used to stand on ceremony against their opponents’ star wristspinners – look at the treatment of Kuldeep Yadav (1 for 72) and Rashid Khan (0 for 110) in 2019, both of whom have exacted notable revenge this time out. And after a tough start to this tournament against India and South Africa, Zampa has grown in confidence with every subsequent outing – his current haul of 16 wickets includes 15 in four consecutive wins, giving him twice as many as Australia’s next most effective bowlers, Cummins and Josh Hazlewood (eight apiece). Zampa also has recent success against these opponents. Although England were rather distracted by their T20 World Cup win when they last met in an ODI series in November 2022, he still emerged with 11 wickets at 11.90 in a 3-0 whitewash.
Team news: Maxwell, Marsh out for Australia
There might be temptation for England to look to the future, and give opportunities to some of the players more likely to feature in the post-World Cup rebuild – most notably their Under-30 pairing of Harry Brook and Gus Atkinson, who has been passed fit despite wearing a cast on his little finger following a blow during training on Thursday. But that would require some statement omissions from the existing XI, and the sense in the build-up is that the players who got England into this mess will be given a chance, for now, to atone for their shortcomings. Brydon Carse, Reece Topley’s replacement, is waiting in the wings, but Mark Wood – three-year contract and all – is just as likely to be unleashed once more with Ashes-style orders to “bowl rockets”.
England (probable): 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Dawid Malan, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Jos Buttler (capt, wk), 6 Moeen Ali / Harry Brook, 7 Liam Livingstone, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 David Willey, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Adil Rashid
All manner of upheaval for Australia in their build-up, with Maxwell’s golf-buggy-induced concussion now compounded by Marsh’s return home for family reasons. It leaves their 15-man squad stretched very thin, a point that captain Cummins has commented on, but the short-term fixes are fairly self-evident. Two further all-rounders in Marcus Stoinis and Cameron Green are the obvious stand-ins, leaving Sean Abbott once again on the sidelines, while Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne are likely to move up a place each in the order, to Nos. 3 and 4 respectively.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Travis Head, 3 Steven Smith, 4 Marnus Labuschagne, 5 Josh Inglis (wk), 6 Marcus Stoinis, 7 Cameron Green, 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 Josh Hazlewood
Pitch and conditions: The red or the black?
As so often in Ahmedabad, the soil type will be a key factor in how the pitch plays. Black soil promises slow and low, red soil promises quick and bouncy, or so the lore goes. At least there won’t be any of the smog concerns that are dogging the build-up to Bangladesh-Sri Lanka in Delhi. A toasty 35 degrees is promised by day in Ahmedabad, with some prospect of dew under lights in the evenings – although England in particular have been caught out by that assumption before.
Stats and trivia: Buttler closing in on 5000
- Australia have won six of their previous nine meetings with England at the 50-over World Cup, including four in a row from 2003 to the group stage in 2019. However, England did win the most recent clash, by eight wickets at Edgbaston in the 2019 semi-final.
- Jos Buttler needs another 72 runs to become the third-fastest Englishman to 5000 ODI runs, in 150 innings. Overall, only six wicketkeeper-batters have 5000 or more runs in ODIs.
- David Willey, who has confirmed his retirement from international cricket at the end of the tournament, needs six more wickets in a maximum of three games to reach 100 in ODIs.
“That was a couple of months ago. It’s done: it’s a new game, new tournament. But I always think a healthy amount of rivalry is good – especially our playing group. We’re quite a chilled, calm group, so when we get a little bit more fired up, I actually don’t think it’s too bad a thing.”
Pat Cummins says Australia have moved on from the Ashes.
“It’s just been a disaster, and there’s no point sugarcoating it because it’s probably what you’re all going to write anyway – and it’s true.”
Ben Stokes tells the media that their assessment of England’s World Cup campaign is spot on.