Even two-thirds of the way through the Cricket World Cup group stage we are still waiting for teams to peel off their false moustaches and reveal who they really are. Pakistan have been traditionally variable. Sri Lanka put in some feeble performances before swarming the tournament host. West Indies flattered, then were flattened.
And when England play Australia at Lord’s on Tuesday, there is a sense that it will answer questions about both teams. For England’s part, whether they will flourish or falter when the pressure really starts to build. For Australia’s, whether this current team can really mount a credible challenge for the trophy.
For Australia, there is at least no intimidation at untrodden ground. Winning the thing is almost humdrum. “The fact that we’ve got six guys in our squad who were part of the 2015 World Cup win is really valuable,” said the captain, Aaron Finch, in understated fashion. “We’ve also got Ricky Ponting with us, Brad Haddin with us, as coaching staff who have won World Cups, and multiple World Cups as well.”
Last year Finch’s team looked like a rabble and even through this tournament there has been a sense of disjointedness to how the batting order is composed and what roles batsmen are there to play. Yet the team have found a way past most opponents. “I think over World Cup history Australia have had that record of peaking at the right time of the tournament,” said Finch.
Taking on England will offer a test of whether that is the case this time round. Of the other teams in the top four, Australia were well beaten by India and are yet to play New Zealand. England, despite stumbles against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, are still a power-packed lineup that do not take kindly to defeat, with a recent record of bouncing back after a lost match in spectacular fashion.
Lord’s, though, is far from the best venue for the kind of high-risk, high-reward approach of modern England. The pitches tend to be slower and scoring rates lower, especially for new batsmen.
On the evidence of the venue’s first World Cup date, when Pakistan beat South Africa, these pitches are taking spin as well. With fast bowlers going for plenty of runs and Imran Tahir low on overs, South Africa turned to Aiden Markram’s very part-time spin through the middle overs of Sunday’s game and found he turned the ball appreciably. Pakistan’s spinners also made telling contributions.
“I think we saw as the game went on it started to turn a little bit more than we probably expected,” Finch said. “It looked like there was a little bit in it to start with, and then it dried out and sort of powdered up and started turning.”
The logical upshot is Australia might have to defy their own convention and play the off-spinner Nathan Lyon alongside the leg‑spinner Adam Zampa. Lyon has had nothing to do in this tournament except sing anthems and ferry beverages. Nathan Coulter-Nile, the first choice for the third fast bowler, has contributed only four wickets in five matches and has often struggled with his accuracy, while Lyon has recently shown a mastery at suffocating the scoring through the middle of an innings. In the warm-up match against England in Southampton Lyon got through his 10 overs at a cost of 37 runs.
Of course, Australian managers are more conservative than any in routinely picking three fast bowlers, especially if Ponting in his coaching role is currently as influential as it appears. Ponting captaining spinners was like a grumpy cop in a buddy comedy teaming up with a flamboyant lounge singer or a rascally dog: he didn’t want them, didn’t trust them, and grudgingly accepted their presence to get a job done. Except in Ponting’s film there were no eventual scenes of bonding and acceptance, where the real Ashes were the friends we made along the way.
Adaptability has not necessarily been a strong point for Australia in this campaign, with wins coming match by match based on the pure quality of some of the players, rather than a finely tuned execution of strategy. But against England’s aggressive batting, having the ability to change things up is key.
The blue-chip pace pair of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins pick themselves, but the supporting cast of Lyon, Zampa, medium pace from Marcus Stoinis and more spin from Glenn Maxwell might be the more useful mix than the standard three-pronged pace. Whether selectors can be that adaptable is a different question.
It is the old question of what your opponent would least prefer you to do. Given the home team’s stop-start campaign, their recent record at Lord’s, and the nature of the wicket on Sunday, an answer isn’t too hard to guess. With four wins in the bank, two more needed, and three games to play, England in this World Cup are very close to having a problem. Australia have the chance to prove they are once again the team to create one.