Australia at Edgbaston with a World Cup final in prospect. It is time to salivate or fret or rejoice depending on your disposition. Despite all the ancient history England are favourites. Australia have played seven World Cup semi-finals and have not lost any; they have lifted the trophy five times.
No wonder they always seem pretty relaxed about the process though Aaron Finch surprised a few when he said he was planning to spend Wednesday afternoon watching The Queen’s Corgi. Somehow it’s hard to imagine Ian Chappell taking that option. Nor is there any record of Chappell leading a barefoot Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh around the Headingley outfield before the 1975 semi-final.
England have not reached a World Cup semi-final since 1992. To put it mildly they have been useless in this tournament for the last 27 years. Now they sense the opportunity to create a bit of history. After those victories against India and New Zealand the confidence of the England players – and the bookmakers – seems to be restored.
It is now a home game for Eoin Morgan’s side, which was unlikely to be the case a week ago. If India had been England’s opponents in Birmingham the stands would have been decorated with dark blue shirts and the roar greeting the fall of every England wicket would have been audible in Coventry. Now that Australia are the opponents English voices will predominate at a stadium which reverts to being the nearest we have to a cricketing Colosseum, especially when Australia are the opponents.
Aaron Finch has proved himself a calm, civilised captain. Moreover we are now familiar with the return of David Warner and Steve Smith to international cricket. There will be some routine pantomime boos but they are used to that now. The enormity of the match will eventually take over.
Australia managed to cruise through the qualifying process with their big players carrying the load. Warner and Finch have been prolific at the top of the order, while the wicketkeeper, Alex Carey, has been a revelation down the order. The others have not had much chance to excel– and as India may have discovered at Old Trafford – this can be a problem in a long tournament. The pace duo have morphed into a trio with the elevation of Jason Behrendorff, the lanky left-armer paceman, alongside the bankers, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc, who is the leading wicket-taker in the tournament. So despite the ease with which they have qualified the composition of their side is uncertain especially since they have lost Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh through injury.
There have even been mumbles that they may consider omitting Glenn Maxwell, a rumour that stems from the feverish speculation that accompanies a big game rather than cricketing logic or anything said by the Australia camp. Finch has offered no suggestion they would dispense with Maxwell. Instead he has lauded his virtues. Naturally England would prefer Maxwell to be omitted, though they would never admit this, just in case it is his day.
England will probably play the side who have been victorious in their last two games, though Morgan said he would see how much grass had been removed from the pitch in the morning. If he sensed the ball may turn then Moeen Ali would be back in contention. The pitch at Edgbaston is in the middle of the square so that the hazard of one short boundary, which was the case when England played India here, has been diminished.
The surface looked brown and reasonably hard on Wednesday. It has not been used before in the World Cup and the expectation from the captains was that there would be quite a few runs out there. The other expectation, which reflects a change of tack and conditions during the tournament is that the captain winning the toss will probably bat first. That has often been the Australia way in this format but England are recent converts. As was evident at Old Trafford on Wednesday chasing any total in a big game is a hazardous occupation.
So what would Morgan say to his men on the eve of such a momentous match for the England team? He may not begin with: “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the floods, leads on to fortune.” In fact he said he would be very disappointed if they did anything different to what they routinely do before any other game. So he would not say anything different, either.
Both captains gave the impression of calmness and professionalism before the game. But for Morgan in particular, after all the planning, this may be little more than an impression.
He also has the problem of Starc, who dismissed him cheaply at Lord’s in a manner that prompted Kevin Pietersen to toss out the notion the England captain was “scared”. No doubt he would like to dispel that idea with some runs, especially against Starc.
But the Pietersen observation is a pinprick compared to the England captain’s yearning to play one more game at the World Cup on Sunday.