Team Australia preview: Strong as usual after rocky phase

With a World Cup title to defend, the time feels right for Steve Smith and David Warner to reintegrate into the national team and script a Hollywood-style narrative.

Australian skipper Aaron Finch (right) has two men — all-rounder Glenn Maxwell and paceman Mitchell Starc — who can call the shots at the quadrennial event.   -  AFP

Australia boasts a strong and imposing 15-man line-up for its World Cup title defence. But let’s cut to the chase. The selection of Steve Smith and David Warner has dominated the headlines.

With all the focus on them, it can be easy to overlook how powerful the squad looks. Several players unluckily missed out, underlining Australia’s deep pool of at least 20 solid candidates. Something you could not have envisioned just a few months ago when the team appeared to be headed for a World Cup embarrassment.

With a World Cup title to defend, the time feels right for Smith and Warner to reintegrate into the national team and script a Hollywood-style narrative.

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Make no mistake, despite the successful returns of the former stars during a pre-World Cup training camp in Brisbane, it’s a tricky situation for Australia’s team management, which has to delicately reintegrate two modern giants.

Unless something drastic happens, Smith and Warner will be in the top six for Australia’s opener against Afghanistan on June 1. Peter Handscomb, who starred at No. 4 in India, unluckily missed out on the squad and his omission was a clear indication of Smith’s pulling power.

Resounding success

However, questions remain unanswered.

Where should they bat? Captain Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja were such a resounding success recently against India and Pakistan that Warner is no guarantee to be shoehorned into his customary opener’s position. Against New Zealand, he batted at No. 3 in the first warm-up match and looked the goods — although he nearly fell first ball — but followed with a duck in his preferred opener’s position alongside Finch.

Still, you can bet Warner will be itching to start the World Cup as an opener. Different format, but parallels can be made to Australia’s failed 2016 T20 World Cup when Warner struggled after surprisingly pushed down the order. He’s an innate opener, who thrives on making a statement from the get go and taking on the new ball at its meanest.

"We have got a certain game style which has been successful in the last eight games, against quality opposition. "For us, it is playing to our strengths. Every team in the World Cup has got their strengths. We aren't too much about opposition's game style. That's where we get distracted from what we are really good at, says Alex Carey.   -  Getty Images

Warner is not someone who likes to sit around in the change rooms waiting for his turn. You feel Warner will probably get his way and Khawaja could be the unlucky fall guy, but it’s all a bit up in the air.

Smith starred at No. 5 against New Zealand and combined well with No. 6 Glenn Maxwell in one match. It’s a potential partnership between two contrasting batsmen that could be highly effective for Australia in the middle-latter overs.

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Before his ban, Smith had struggled in the top four trying to set up an innings and too often got bogged down. He seemed relatively sedate compared to the pyrotechnics of cutting-edge batting line-ups England and India. Batting lower, Smith is freed of that burden and his purposeful approach complements the firepower of Maxwell and wicketkeeper Alex Carey. It makes sense for Smith to bat at No. 5, but on the big stage, Australia might be tempted to revert back to its successful formula of four years ago. Finch, Warner and Smith brilliantly clicked at the 2015 World Cup with Smith, particularly, nerveless in the knockout stages.

Best performer

Veteran Shaun Marsh, who has been the country’s best ODI performer in the past 12 months, could also be pushing for a spot. The left-hander, of course, just can’t shake of his reputation as a chronic underachiever even though his ODI stats are similar to Smith’s.

No one really trusts the 35-year-old under the brightest of lights. It’s why Smith has been entrusted; he is the type of player to raise his game when the stakes are highest.

Marcus Stoinis, such a dynamic match-winner on the right day, will be a temptation to slot at No. 5 and could potentially pack an almighty punch alongside Maxwell and Carey. But can they be relied upon under the suffocating pressure?

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Perhaps the most encouraging performance against New Zealand was spearhead Mitchell Starc who returned from a pectoral injury.

Starc won’t have the support of the reliable Josh Hazlewood and young gun Jhye Richardson, who has been ruled out with injury. There is Pat Cummins, of course, but the third seamer’s spot is up for grabs.

Kane Richardson, his namesake’s replacement, struggled against New Zealand while Nathan Coulter-Nile and Jason Behrendorff are relatively inexperienced at the top level. Australia has a lot to work out before June 1.

M & M

Glenn Maxwell:

Maxwell is one of the most mercurial batsmen in the world. On his day, no one can replicate his dazzling array of audacious strokes. Not even Alex Hales, who is batting like he has the cheat mode for that classic ’90s video game Brian Lara Cricket. He could be particularly damaging on the small grounds at the World Cup. But you never know which Maxwell will show up.

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We know coach Justin Langer has never quite trusted the Victorian despite Maxwell’s astounding all-round talent, which includes handy off-spin and dynamic fielding. A strong tournament could change his perception.

Mitchell Starc: Against New Zealand, Starc bowled several eye-catching toe-crushers, such a trademark for him but a delivery that has been slightly awry in recent years. Australia’s World Cup hopes largely rest on the fiery left-armer. He is a brilliant white ball bowler and has the firepower to change a match in the matter of deliveries. Remember his heroics against New Zealand in Auckland at the last World Cup?

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If he can bowl somewhere even close to four years ago — when he was the player of the tournament — then Australia will be tough to beat.