Fallen stars: How Australia's ODI side must improve ahead of World Cup
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Fallen stars: How Australia's ODI side must improve ahead of World Cup

Aaron Finch was one of three Australian ODI captains in 2018.

Aaron Finch was one of three Australian ODI captains in 2018.Credit:AAP

Less than five months from cricket's showpiece event in London, Australia's World Cup defence is in disarray.

That may seem a harsh call but consider this: Australia have had three one-day international captains over the past year, have used 24 players, with five more added to this list for the three-match series against India, beginning on Saturday, and have won only three of their past 23 matches, including two of 13 last year, their worst calendar year in ODI history.

If that's not a crisis, what is?

The national selectors would typically like to have a 15-man World Cup squad largely settled by this point but that plan has been made even more difficult by the absence of David Warner and Steve Smith. They will be back for the big dance, and could even return during the five-match ODI series against Pakistan in March and April, but just who fits in around the batting king pins remains questionable.

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That Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood have been rested against India means arguably five of the XI likely to take to the field in the World Cup opener against Afghanistan are absent this summer. This clearly is not an ideal way to engender team spirit, build momentum or even fine-tune specific roles.

It's also another arrow at this summer's convoluted schedule, for the three fast bowlers have been rested to prepare for the two Tests against Sri Lanka, beginning on January 24 in Brisbane.

However, with the World Cup beginning on May 30, complaining is not the answer if Justin Langer's side is to rebound from sixth spot in the ODI rankings.

ATTITUDE

Any time a side has three captains within 11 months you know things haven't gone to plan. A tired Smith, who should have been rested, was in charge of the home 4-1 series loss to England. Tim Paine took over for the winless mid-year drubbing in England before it was determined his lack of explosiveness with the bat was an issue. Aaron Finch took over for the 2-1 series loss to South Africa and will guide the side through the World Cup. Coach Langer and Finch took steps towards harnessing a new attitude and culture during the Proteas series, something they will build on. There is also a need to settle this side in terms of selection as soon as possible.

It is understood some players had become so uncertain about their positions amid a fear of failure that a sense of selfishness had crept into their play. While that to a degree is always true in cricket, a sport that straddles team and individual goals, roles need to be selflessly embraced if this side is to rebound. ODI cricket has become the third cog in recent seasons, with series at the back end of Test campaigns particularly losing their edge. That had become noticeable within the Australian dressing room. A more sophisticated approach to the format has also been seen as critical, for Australia has dropped off the pace since the focus of a home World Cup was completed.

BATTING

One worry is that the Australians passed 300 only three times last year. The line-up will be strengthened when Smith and Warner return from suspension. It has been pointed out Warner made only 73 runs at 14.6 in his last five ODIs - against England last summer - but he did supply 691 runs at 57.58 with three tons in 2017. He had seven centuries in 2016, so his return appears all but certain regardless of any personality clashes.

Replacing Smith has been just as difficult, although his form through 2017 and in last year's home series against England had tapered off, with only one century in his past 20 innings.

Regardless of what happens with Smith and Warner, Finch needs to lead at the top of the order after a quiet series against the Proteas. Having tinkered with his technique in a bid to flourish in the red-ball format, with the results there less than convincing, there is a concern this could hamper his white-ball form. However, he has four centuries and two half-centuries in his past 14 ODI innings.

Back from almost a two-year absence, it's up to Usman Khawaja to show he belongs at the top of the order. If he fails, expect calls for D'Arcy Short - averaging 76 in domestic one-day cricket over the past two years - to return to become even louder despite Short being told he needs to improve his play against spin.

Shaun Marsh, his Test career appearing over, is seen as the No. 3 - his century against the Proteas in Hobart is one of the few Australian highlights of the summer.

Shaun Marsh's century against South Africa in Hobart was a highlight.

Shaun Marsh's century against South Africa in Hobart was a highlight.Credit:AAP

What to do with Glenn Maxwell remains a burning question. He wants to bat at least in the top six but was demoted to No. 7 in that Hobart game and told publicly by Finch to lift his game. Can he fill the "closer" role? He has only one half-century in his past 14 ODI innings, although the match situation hasn't always been on his side. Maxwell remains one of the great enigmas of Australian cricket. In a World Cup where spin is likely to play a key role, his part-time off-spinners could be more than handy but he needs runs.

Chris Lynn has been dumped from this series, his World Cup hopes in trouble. He had been seen as the top-order power hitter but his poor form in ODIs and Twenty20 internationals, and concerns about how he would handle spin, have seen a change in thinking.

Wicketkeeper Alex Carey has been made vice-captain and will have a key role to play in thumping runs in the final overs but is Matthew Wade a better option? Opportunity also beckons for Peter Handscomb, having replaced Travis Head.

BOWLING

This has become a major concern, and where a more sophisticated approach is needed. Among the 10 nations competing in the World Cup, the Australians had the worst record in terms of curbing runs in the "death" overs of 41-50 last year. For all the talk about the "big three", Cummins conceded more than 12 runs an over when used late in an innings, while Marcus Stoinis and Jhye Richardson conceded more than nine. Starc conceded eight an over and Hazlewood was just under eight. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa was more difficult to get away, conceding less than six an over.

Peter Siddle, recalled after playing the last of his 17 ODIs in 2010, has flourished in the domestic 50-overs competition - he conceded less than four runs an over this summer - and at the death for the Adelaide Strikers in the BBL. With Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood to return for England, left-arm quick Jason Behrendorff is set be the 20th debutant since the 2015 World Cup final. Richardson, Billy Stanlake and Siddle appear to be jostling for two spots.

Pat Cummins has been expensive bowling at the end of innings.

Pat Cummins has been expensive bowling at the end of innings.Credit:AAP

The Australians have also been in a flux over spin. Zampa has improved his game and has more confidence but is he the right man? That four of the top 11 ranked ODI bowlers are leg-spinners, with the left-arm leg spin of Kuldeep Yadav making it five, highlights how important wrist-spin will be on the flat pitches of England.

Nathan Lyon's return to the squad was a blow for a frustrated Ashton Agar but also shows the importance of quality spin. It's all very well to have part-time spinners who can do a "job" but Lyon, with only 15 ODIs since his debut in 2012, has the chance to prove quality will be pivotal when the stakes are at their highest.

ALL-ROUNDER

This is another debate. Mitch Marsh, having been overlooked for the Proteas' series, and Marcus Stoinis have been selected for the Indian series. Stoinis is the only Australian to play in all 13 ODIs last year, confirming he has become a set piece of this side. But can he play in the same team as Marsh? Stoinis' batting was disappointing in England last year when tried at No. 3 and No. 4 and he wasted opportunities against the Proteas, finally coming good with a 63 in Hobart at No. 5. However, an overall average of 42.41 at a strike rate of 98.22 suggests his power hitting will be crucial. He delivers what is termed a "heavy" ball but his record of 18 wickets at 43.38 at an economy rate of 6.05 is modest. His eight wickets against the Proteas, including a match-winning 3-35 in Adelaide, showed what he is capable of.

Marsh, at one stage last year, was in the mix for the ODI captaincy but cannot solidify his spot. While he will miss Saturday's clash because of gastro, in his favour through 53 ODIs is that his batting average (35.7 at a strike rate of 93.08) is a tad higher than his bowling average (35.54 at an economy rate of 5.52), the latter perhaps giving him an edge on Stoinis. There is the option of dropping one of the quicks and adding batting depth with Marsh and Stoinis but that sparks questions about Maxwell and the need for spin options.

AUSTRALIAN ODI SQUAD v INDIA: Aaron Finch (c), Jason Behrendorff, Alex Carey (wk), Peter Handscomb, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Peter Siddle, Billy Stanlake, Marcus Stoinis, Adam Zampa, Ashton Turner.

Jon Pierik is a sports writer with The Age, focusing primarily on AFL football, cricket and basketball. He has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.

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