AClose to definitive series wins over India and England in the summer – and a total of 29 wins in their last 30 ODIs – Australia head into the Women’s World Cup as heavy favourites. It’s a familiar position for this team, which has dominated world cricket for many years. But this particular tournament brings more pressure than usual, and Australia are desperate to win back the trophy after last failing to qualify in 2017.
It doesn’t take a wild imagination to imagine Meg Lanning hoisting the trophy in Christchurch on April 3, but a loss to India in the third ODI of the series in September and a complete loss to New Zealand in a warm-up match this week revealed a few rare weaknesses.
The inability to take wickets – which was heavily exposed in the 2017 semi-final loss to India – was again a concern against the Black Ferns. Australia failed to defend a solid tally of 321, taking just one wicket as Sophie Devine (161 not knocked out) and Amelia Kerr (92 not knocked out) chased the tally with ease and over six overs to spare. Rival teams will have taken notes on how the Ferns were able to escape the bowling of the No 1-ranked ODI team.
A World Cup is a different beast than a regular series; the slightest mistake can spell the end of a team’s chances, as Australia know all too well after a shock loss to India in the first round of the 2020 T20 World Cup saw them close to quitting the tournament in the semi-finals. An almost miraculous break in time allowed this match to be played and Australia progressed to the final, which they won, but it was a close race.
The format of this tournament allows a little more leeway for these slip-ups. Rather than being split into two pools, the eight teams will each play each other once, with the top four advancing to the semi-finals. This means there will be plenty of opportunities to make up for any early defeat, although the Australians will want to avoid meeting hosts New Zealand in the semi-finals.
But the cloud that hovers the most over the whole tournament is the Covid-19. Already versatile Ash Gardner tested positive and must self-isolate for 10 days; she will miss matches against England and Pakistan. Everything is being done to keep the players as safe as possible, but there remains the possibility that a string of positive tests could derail the Australians’ campaign.
The depth of Matthew Mott’s side is enviable, but the loss of Beth Mooney, Tahlia McGrath or Meg Lanning for a must-win game could see the trophy fall quickly from their grasp for another four years, even if the ICC has prepared for the eventuality of a tournament impacted by Covid.
“If it became necessary, we would allow a team to field nine players on an exceptional basis for this environment and if they had female substitutes in their management team, we would allow two substitutes to play, not batting, not batting. bowling, but to allow a game to take place,” said ICC events manager Chris Tetley.
It’s an exception that would have been unthinkable in pre-pandemic times – a circumstance reserved for suburban park cricket and captains who spend their Fridays furiously texting everyone they know who’s ever picked up a cricket bat to try to get numbers for the next day. Game. For a national team to enter the field with just nine players – in a World Cup no less – would have seemed as unlikely as international cricket played in empty stadiums. However, the world has changed and the view of media officers and physiotherapists on the court for a long time and additional coverage may not even be new by the end of this tournament.
As the first major women’s cricket tournament since the pandemic took hold, there are more uncertainties than teams are used to. Australia have the form and results to suggest this World Cup is theirs, but the winner may well be the team best able to adapt to the changing circumstances of the world we live in. Preparation and planning can be thrown out the window in the blink of an eye and it’s the Australians’ adaptability that will come under the microscope over the next month.