Australia are on a roll having won four games on the trot to put themselves in a strong position to make yet another World Cup semi-final. The woes of their poor lead-in and the two losses to start the tournament seem well behind them. However, there are still areas than can be improved and that could be exposed if they are not resolved. Here are the key issues for them ahead of a date with England.
The Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne question
Australia have become the first side in men’s ODI history to post three consecutive totals of 350 or more. It’s hard to believe that there are any weaknesses in the batting armour when such scores are being posted so consistently. But the middle-order has not contributed greatly in those innings and has even been a hindrance at times that has only been rescued by the incredible late-order hitting of Glenn Maxwell ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/cricketers/glenn-maxwell-325026), with support from Josh Inglis and Pat Cummins in the last game in particular.
Australia slumped from 252 for 0 to 363 for 9 against Pakistan ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2023-24-1367856/australia-vs-pakistan-18th-match-1384409/full-scorecard), scoring just 108 in the last 16.1 overs. They fell from 244 for 2 to 290 for 6 against Netherlands ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2023-24-1367856/australia-vs-netherlands-24th-match-1384415/full-scorecard) before Maxwell unleashed fury with a 40-ball century, and against New Zealand ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2023-24-1367856/australia-vs-new-zealand-27th-match-1384418/full-scorecard) crawled from 200 for 1 in the 24th over to 274 for 5 in the 39th over before Maxwell, Inglis and Cummins clubbed their way to 388. But they also lost 4 for 1 in the last two overs.
“They’ll be relief from the Australians, no doubt about it. If it [the New Zealand game] had snuck away from them, their batting through the middle of their innings was deplorable,” Ricky Ponting said on the host broadcast.
Marsh looked very uncomfortable starting against spin having been moved to No. 3 against New Zealand following Head’s return and was a big reason for the go-slow. Meanwhile, Smith has voiced his displeasure about batting at No. 4 ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/icc-cricket-world-cup-2023-pat-cummins-steven-smith-will-do-what-s-best-for-the-team-1405617). Labuschagne played well against Netherlands but has not been able to capitalise on starts otherwise in the tournament with an overall strike-rate of 77.30.
Unlike the two other form sides in the tournament, India and South Africa, and to a lesser degree New Zealand with Rachin Ravindra and Daryl Mitchell, Australia’s middle order looks like a weak point. Marsh and Smith in particular need to find a way to gel at No. 3 and 4 if the openers have made a big start. Or Australia need to be more flexible with their order, as they were without success against Pakistan, and send out better starters against spin ahead of Marsh to keep the momentum moving through the middle-overs.
What is the role for Marcus Stoinis and Cameron Green?
Australia had long planned to play a bevy of allrounders in their line-up in this World Cup to give them options in this tournament. They had played XIs in the previous 12 months with four allrounders in them, including Marsh, Maxwell, Cameron Green ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/cricketers/cameron-green-1076713) and Marcus Stoinis ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/cricketers/marcus-stoinis-325012) with one of them batting at No. 8 to strengthen the batting and give a multitude of bowling options.
In the last game, they picked just Maxwell and Marsh and the latter only bowled two overs for 18. Stoinis’ fitness is a major concern. He’s played just three matches in five weeks and bowled just nine overs in the tournament. He missed the first game against India with a hamstring problem and has missed the last two with a calf niggle.
It was telling, too, that Green, who had already been dropped for Stoinis, played against the Netherlands but didn’t bowl and then was squeezed out when Head returned against New Zealand. Australia’s selectors preferred the more in-form specialist batter in Labuschagne to retaining Green as an all-round option, showing faith in their specialist bowlers and Maxwell to do the job, which they were just barely able to do.
But if a bowler goes the journey again, like Mitchell Starc did in Dharamsala, it leaves them vulnerable, particularly if they don’t score enough runs. If Stoinis is fully fit, he will likely be named in their first-choice XI as it strengthens the bowling and the death-hitting and potentially means the middle-order is less one-dimensional.
However, it means one of Smith or Labuschagne would make way leaving the middle-to-lower order heavily reliant on Maxwell who has been most effective when he is held back for the final 12 overs.
Mitchell Starc yet to sparkle
Mitchell Starc ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://www.espncricinfo.com/cricketers/mitchell-starc-311592) is not the same bowler he has been in past editions of the World Cups where his record marks him down as an all-time great ^(https://lotus365.today/goto/https://stats.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/stats/index.html?class=2;filter=advanced;orderby=wickets;template=results;trophy=12;type=bowling). His record 22-game World Cup wicket-taking streak ended against New Zealand when he gave up 89 from nine overs. He found a way to survive the final over with 19 runs to play with but it wasn’t pretty.
The Dharamsala surface was not kind to the faster bowlers in general which puts his off-colour performance in context, but his overall tournament has not been great. Australia have been one of the poorest-performing teams in terms of new ball bowling, which is Starc’s specialty.
He did have a compromised preparation due to ongoing groin soreness that has lingered since the Ashes and it may explain why he hasn’t been as explosive. But Australia need a bigger contribution from him. They do not have a like-for-like left-arm option in the squad if Starc does need a rest with Sean Abbott the only back-up pace bowling support.
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo
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