England v Australia in a World Cup semi-final feels like a bit of a terrible mismatch when we look at the historical achievements of these famous old rivals.
The rich tapestry of the Cricket World Cup is woven together with fibers that practically contain the DNA of many storied Australian cricketers from several vintages; there is no need to embroider any English players into the same piece of cloth.
Thursday’s match is a case of five-time champions against no-time champions, and the head-to-head makes ugly reading too for England fans. Their only successes in eight World Cup matches against the Aussies came in 1979 at Lord’s - when Bob Willis bowled 11 overs costing just 20 runs - and in Sydney in 1992. The first of those was hardly surprising since the cream of Australian cricket had been stripped bare by Kerry Packer’s World Series cash, while the Sydney result owed a lot to a typical tour de force effort from Ian Botham.
Other than those two highlights there has been nothing but ignominy for England against Australia in World Cups. The most important contest was of course the 1987 final when Mike Gatting’s team looked well set in a chase of 254 in Kolkata until the skipper decided to try out a reverse sweep against his opposite number Allan Border.
And yet, when looking at the recent head-to-head in ODIs between England and Australia - form that is of course much more relevant than what has happened in decades of yore - the overwhelming top dog has been England. Since 8 September 2015, Australia have lost 12 matches against England and won just three.
The most recent contest of all, however, was in this very tournament and represented something of a nadir for English fortunes. Aaron Finch hit a century, David Warner a fifty, Mitchell Starc bowled with terrific skill and accuracy, while Jason Behrendorff - almost unnoticed - cashed in with an ODI-best 5-44.
England, facing a far from insurmountable target of 286, caved in with only Ben Stokes (89) emerging with any credit with the bat. The 64-run loss led to some soul-searching in the England camp but they responded well to beat India and New Zealand. With a shade of good fortune, they won the toss on both occasions allowing them to bat first and eliminate a pressure-laden chase.
The Edgbaston factor
There’s one more issue to consider: England really enjoy playing at Edgbaston, the venue of Thursday’s semifinal, while Australia emphatically do not. The Aussies have won only three times in nine completed Edgbaston ODIs against England, the last of them in 1993. They have also won just three Ashes Tests in 14 tries at the venue; by stark contrast, England have won their last 10 matches across all formats in Birmingham and can reflect on epic Ashes successes there in both 1981 and 2005, famous wins that shifted the balance of power in the two most chronicled rubbers of all.
More akin to football fans, Edgbaston supporters are less genteel than in some other regions of the country. They are not frightened to exhibit their partisanship, making a whole lot of noise and generally doing their utmost to get under the skin of the opponents.
As Joe Root acknowledged the other day: “It’s great to have the record on this ground in the back of our minds. We really enjoy playing here and always get good support. You get a real sense of belief from the crowd, it does make a difference. Whether it’s the noise bouncing off the stands I don’t know, but I feel there’s a great element of support.”
The key players
With all this stated, it could simply boil down to a battle between which opening partnership provides the most runs. David Warner and Aaron Finch have scored more than 1,100 runs between them in the tournament so far and have timed their innings so astutely. They can be surprisingly patient in the early stages and explosive once they are at peace with conditions.
Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy like to take the initiative away from the opposition bowlers and will take risks against the new ball that other opening pairings won’t. By and large, they have clicked. Certainly, since the recovery of Roy (who missed three games in the middle of the round-robin due to injury), their partnership has purred smoothly.
There are other important players too. Starc, with his 26 wickets, is Australia’s attack dog. Not for him the slow-ball bouncers and wide yorkers that proliferate the arsenal of other international seamers. Starc bowls the way he would in a Test match. He bowls to get batsmen out, all the time.
England don’t have a Starc, but they have no weak link in their bowling. The new-ball craft of Chris Woakes, the raw pace of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, the middle-overs nous of Liam Plunkett, the snarling attitude of Ben Stokes and the googly-rich diet of Adil Rashid keep opponents on their toes throughout.
Who needs to step up?
Will the real Steve Smith please make himself known? An average of 32.66 reflects a highly disappointing return from the former captain who has never thrived in English conditions, whatever the format. He is a curious player, one whose batting style - it would almost be inappropriate to use the word “technique” - suggests he never paid a blind bit of notice to his coaches. With a Test match average of 61.37, we all know what an extraordinarily effective batsman he can be in that format, but are the bowlers finally working out the chinks in his armour?
Jos Buttler hit a terrific century against Pakistan but has gone 2, 10, 25, 20, 11 in his last five innings. In some respects, the sportier than expected wickets have not played to his strengths and by tending to bat at number six he rarely has the luxury of getting himself in before teeing off. But we have begun to expect Buttler to do the impossible from the word go and there’s no question he has been slightly off colour. Now would be a great time to hit form once again.
So what will happen?
It’s tempting to suggest simply that the team batting first will win, since England have been peerless when batting first but rudderless when chasing. The Aussies will really fancy their chances if they can defend anything in the 275-plus range.
What England do have is a clean bill of health going into Thursday’s big game, and that’s something that can’t be said about their opponents. Usman Khawaja is out with a hamstring strain and Marcus Stoinis is battling a right side-strain. Australia may elect to go into the match with only four recognised bowlers to beef up their batting and that could be a gamble.
The fact that we’re back at Edgbaston, where England racked up 337 against India’s excellent bowling attack, should be what swings the contest in favour of the hosts. But they must go out there with clear heads and a firm belief that they are the better side.