England at Edgbaston and Australia in World Cups. The unstoppable force will meet the immovable object on Thursday, as hosts England come up against the five-time winners and defending champions, just weeks before the two again battle for Ashes once more.
A herculean tussle awaits all those lucky enough to snatch tickets for the second semi-final and they are pretty much guaranteed entertainment, with both sides brimming with eye-catching, match-winning individuals.
Both teams look to set the tone early with ball and with bat, and whoever seizes the early advantage with either ball or bat is unlikely to concede it.
The opening batting exploits of both teams could well decide the outcome of the clash with David Warner and skipper Aaron Finch combining to score 1,145 runs this tournament for Australia – with Finch maintaining a strike-rate of over 100 in the process – whilst the hosts have Jason Roy fit and raring to go, with partner Jonny Bairstow on top form.
The latter however, are the best ODI opening partnership in the history of white-ball cricket and may tip the balance, having now amassed 10 century partnerships together in just 31 innings, whilst also possessing the highest strike-rate among any opening pair to have played together on a consistent basis.
Roy – who has been compared to a lion by his England teammates on Twitter for his aggressive, fearless approach to batting – was injured for the group stage game in which Mitchell Starc and Jason Behrendorff blew England’s top order away, but this is England’s chance to exact sweet revenge at the most opportune moment.
With Edgbaston unlikely to be as welcoming for the swing of Australia’s opening bowlers, together wth England’s record in Birmingham standing at an impressive 23 wins in 36 completed ODIs – with Eoin Morgan never losing there as captain – there is ample reason to be cheerful for home fans.
Aussie’ mind games
Australia ended their strange reticence to select off-spinner Nathan Lyon instead of leg-spinner Adam Zampa against England in the group stages, and although Australia ended the pool stages with a defeat on Saturday to a pressure-less South Africa, Lyon has been the most miserly Aussie bowler on show with more than three overs to their name, conceding just 4.55 runs an over in his three matches.
Lyon, not known as the shy and retiring type, and heaping his brand of customary pressure on England, ensured the world’s media were acutely aware he thinks all the pressure is on England heading into this crunch pre-Ashes game.
What is for certain is that, much in the same way England played against fellow favourites India at the same venue, Roy, Bairstow and co. will be targeting the spin of Lyon.
If Australia go with the same bowling attack that faced South Africa in the last group game, 20 overs of spin will be bowled by Lyon and Maxwell, neither of whom have any surprise variations in which to catch batsmen out – their deception comes through a change in pace or flight.
Despite England’s record against spin early in the tournament, where both Roy and Bairstow fell cheaply to a slow bowler, they are perhaps even more adept at facing spin than they are against pace.
Against New Zealand, Kiwi captain Kane Williamson opted to open the bowling with some slow left-arm in Mitchell Santner. Though Roy survived an early scare, Santner ended up going for 65 off his 10 overs – comfortably above the average run-rate of the England innings.
Against India, a side which between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups relied on their spinners to take almost half of their wickets (47.7%), England pummelled Kuldeep Yadav and especially Yuzvendra Chahal to all parts of Edgbaston, taking advantage of the short boundary to plunder 160 runs off India’s spin twins in just 20 overs, with Roy the only wicket to fall to spin (and only because of a sensational catch on the boundary by Ravindra Jadeja.)
Starc and Behrendorff will of course take up much of the pre-match chatter before England go out to bat, because of how the hosts were 53-4 after the Aussie pair’s opening onslaught.
But, with Roy back in the side and Bairstow having scored back-to-back centuries since then, expect England to realise just how important keeping their two openers at the crease is by batting sensibly up top.
Wade set for call?
With Usman Khawaja officially ruled out of the World Cup due to a hamstring injury, all eyes are on who Australia will plump for as his replacement.
With Khawaja having batted at three for most of the campaign, a key position is missing in Australia’s batting order right now. It is most likely that Steve Smith will move up from no.4, as the former skipper can be the glue that holds the Aussie innings together, in a similar way Joe Root bats for England.
The big decision will be who comes in at four, with Stoinis a major doubt and Glenn Maxwell deemed too inconsistent to bat the length of time required in that position.
Australia could go back to Shaun Marsh, who is a more typical top-order batsman but has managed just 26 runs in his two outings so far.
The likelihood is for Matthew Wade, previously touring in England with Australia A in preparation for the Ashes next month, to come straight into the starting eleven, and has been given glowing praise by former Aussie skipper Michael Clarke.
Clarke is well aware that England have almost ‘out-Aussied’ Australia in their approach to this World Cup. By being ultra-aggressive and making opponents feel as if they are coming up against a better team from the very start, this England side possesses the qualities Australia’s great Test team of the ’90s and noughties had, a platform what that still makes Australia the most successful World Cup team in history.
Despite Clarke suggesting Wade is in form, this is only built up in county cricket (Wade scored 117 and 155 for Australia A against Northants and Derbyshire respectively).
On the international stage, Wade averages less than 26 – 23 when it’s against England – at a strike rate of just 82. Wade, now 31, probably has the mental toughness to deal with stepping into a World Cup semi final, but he does not have the statistics to back it up.
Alex Carey however, does. Australia’s current gloveman has been superb with the willow this tournament, averaging nearly 66 down at no.7 at a strike rate of 113.44: almost exactly the same strike rate of England’s saviour Roy (114.04) in almost exactly the same amount of balls faced (Carey has faced 290 deliveries, Roy 299).
A brilliant knock of 85 from just 69 balls on Saturday almost got Australia into the first semi-final and the easier task – on paper, at least – of playing the out-of-form New Zealand.
If ‘keepers Carey and Wade are vital for Australia, then fellow wicketkeepers Bairstow and Jos Buttler hold the key for England, but are in very different places right now.
After Bairstow’s much publicised spat with former England captain Michael Vaughan, the Yorkshireman has answered his critics in some style by becoming the first England batsman to score back-to-back World Cup hundreds.
He has blossomed since Roy’s return, with the pair able to ride in each other’s slipstreams and cannon out of the other side at a rate of knots unrivalled in the world game.
But despite their electric starts, England have failed to capitalise fully on such excellent foundations. When well set for scores approaching 400 against both India and New Zealand, a stuttering middle-order mixed with some excellent opposition bowling have prevented the hosts blowing teams out of the water, though thankfully not at the expense of wins recently.
Buttler remains an enigma in this England side, but his World Cup campaign has been slightly underwhelming, perhaps because he is still the only batsman without a clear role in the side. Because of his jaw-dropping capabilities with the bat, England view Buttler as a ‘floater’, a the guy that can come in at no.4 if England have got off to a flier, and rub the opposition’s noses even more rigorously into the dirt.
However, perhaps because of the slower nature of the England pitches, Buttler has failed to fire in any position so far. With the one exception of a brilliant century in a losing cause against Pakistan, Buttler has scored just 153 runs in his other seven innings – an average of just 21.86 – and has scores of two, 10, 25, 20 and 11 in his last five innings.
If England want to win this World Cup, they need their biggest players firing. Roy and Bairstow have done it with the bat. Jofra Archer and Mark Wood have done it with the ball. Ben Stokes has done it practically everywhere. But if Buttler fails to improve his current form, it could mean the difference between success and failure. Something both and England cannot even consider.
England face off with Australia in the second ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston, on Thursday.
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