David Warner and Aaron Finch walk out to bat © Associated Press
Four years ago, Australia’s World Cup campaign was stuttering in the wake of a washout against Bangladesh and then a dramatic defeat by New Zealand at Eden Park. Duly chastened, they flew across the continent to face Afghanistan. With a staunch batting display from David Warner and Steven Smith and a comfortable victory, they were able to refocus on the goal ahead – they did not suffer another defeat on the way to lifting the trophy at the MCG.
This time around, Australia will make their first impression in a 10-team round-robin World Cup against the same opposition, in Smith and Warner’s first official match since returning from their Newlands bans. Unsure of themselves as an ODI entity for a long time between major tournaments, the Australians under Aaron Finch and Justin Langer have found form and rhythm in the past few months, and are now spoken of as likely semi-finalists.
That confidence would be shaken should Afghanistan, more than capable of inflicting defeats on unsteady opposition, find a way past. Following the dramatic tie with India at last year’s Asia Cup, they have been handed a new captain in Gulbadin Naib, while carving out victories against Ireland, Scotland and Pakistan prior to a heavy warm-up defeat by England. Based on the tournament opener that last result was far from a disgrace, and in the Gloucestershire university town of Bristol, the spin of Rashid Khan and a serviceable bevy of seam and swing operatives present the opportunity to trip up Finch’s men early.
Perhaps the greatest gulf between the teams lies in the pace department, with Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins going up against opponents used to lower bounce. A similarly hot reception may await Smith and Warner from the crowds in Bristol and beyond, prompting Langer to make one more appeal for civility and generosity. It is an entreaty that probably has as much chance of being heard as those of any Afghanistan batsman hoping for a leg-stump half volley or three.
Rashid Khan is congratulated by Gulbadin Naib after taking a wicket © Sportsfile via Getty Images
Form guide (last five completed matches)
In the spotlight
A little more than 12 months after the Newlands scandal banished him from the game and the Australian captaincy, Steven Smith appears to be revving up nicely. While still not 100% fit due to shoulder surgery – an issue most noticeable when throwing – his batting touch has been imperious to date, following three half-centuries with a hundred against England and then a rest against Sri Lanka. The key question for Smith in relation to Australia is how he shapes up to bat and where, either with a free mind and ample repertoire of strokes or with the weighty responsibility of carrying the innings. The former captain Mark Taylor, a Smith confidante, has pushed for his return to No. 3 in the batting order, while others favour the greater freedom of a middle-order spot. Whatever happens, Smith’s best means of helping Australia and reconnecting with the game’s audience will be to score runs with his old panache.
For all the brilliance Rashid Khan has demonstrated for Afghanistan, and also in the Big Bash League for the Adelaide Strikers, an ODI date with Australia is an entrance into the unknown. Not only has Rashid never played Finch’s team in a 50-over match, he has also seldom bowled at many of their number in the BBL, given the crossover with international cricket. It is the recent tendency of opposing sides facing Afghanistan to treat Rashid with due deference, even to the point of trying to sit on him. But his many variations and a mental knack for batting weakness are such that any approach carries risk. The Australians will hope that Rashid is not able to exert a pivotal influence on the contest, and he will be an excellent early test of whether they have improved their play against quality spin as much as they think they have.
Lasith Malinga passes on some tips to Marcus Stoinis © Getty Images/ICC
David Warner, who had been struggling with a sore glute, has passed his fitness test and is not only set to play the game but also open the batting.
Australia (probable) 1 Aaron Finch (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Steven Smith, 4 Usman Khawaja, 5 Glenn Maxwell, 6 Marcus Stoinis, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Nathan Coulter-Nile, 10 Mitchell Starc, 11 Adam Zampa
There was one point during their first warm-up match against Pakistan when both Mohammad Shahzad and Hazratullah Zazai received treatment to their hamstrings. However, that was a week ago and Zazai seemed in no trouble when he played Afghanistan’s second practice match against England.
Afghanistan (probabale): 1 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 2 Hazratullah Zazai, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Asghar Afghan, 5 Mohammad Nabi, 6 Gulbadin Naib (capt), 7 Najibullah Zadran, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, 10 Hamid Hassan, 11 Dawlat Zadran
Pitch and conditions
The last warm-up match in Bristol produced over 750 runs as West Indies piled up 421 against New Zealand. There are enticingly short boundaries which will test the bowling nerve of both sides. This will be the first day/night match of the competition but the forecast is set to be dry and warm.
Stats and Trivia
- Smith has scored 329 runs in five innings during Australia’s warm-up matches against New Zealand, West Indies and England.
- Starc has played just seven ODIs since the Champions Trophy in mid-2017
“I can’t remember a group of players who have had so much laughter, and that’s a really good sign for me.”
Australia coach Justin Langer
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo