A couple of days ago, England fans were gleefully looking forward to the chance to knock Australia out of the T20 World Cup on their own patch, but so quickly do the sands shift in this format that Friday’s meeting is now laced with equal amounts of jeopardy for both of the old rivals.
Yesterday’s results — Ireland’s rain-affected win over England and the lack of one in a washout between New Zealand and Afghanistan — have blown Group 1 of the Super 12 stage wide open, and with La Nina and net-run-rate each likely to play a part, the permutations are complex and plentiful. Still, suffice to say that the loser at the MCG will be left needing snookers and the victor well on course for the last-four.
If English confidence now is shaken, then prior to that soggy Ireland struggle it did not seem misplaced, Jos Buttler’s side in fine form, having usurped Australia as favourites, a position the hosts held pre-tournament more on account of conditions and defending champion status than recent results.
A 2-0 home series defeat only this month — a whitewash was dodged only thanks to yet more drizzle — was a reminder that the white-ball rivalry between the two countries has been just as one-sided as the red, England winning five of the last six bilateral contests and dismantling Australia in the group stage of the last World Cup in the UAE.
That schooling (England won by eight wickets with 50 balls to spare) looked the kind to spark a period of introspection over Australia’s short-form approach, a move back to the T20 drawing board. So, naturally, a few weeks later, they were unlikely champions of the world.
For an England side that had come to be viewed as pioneers in white-ball cricket, chasing the first men’s World Cup double, the outcome seemed almost unfair, the trophy captured instead as an unexpected bonus by a country that has often appeared unfussed about embracing the changing intricacies of a rapidly-evolving format, to their significant detriment between tournaments but apparently not on the biggest stage.
Somewhat paradoxically, the Australian team that now stands on the brink of elimination feels marginally more like a modern T20 outfit, in terms of approach and balance, than the one that triumphed 12 months ago, after franchise firecracker Tim David effectively displaced Steve Smith, who has finally been dropped years after England did away with their equivalent anchor figure in Joe Root.
Though yet to really fire, David, along with the likes of Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell, should provide a truer test of England’s susceptible death bowling than managed by Afghanistan or Ireland’s tails, and they will need to if ailing captain Aaron Finch insists on scratching around up top.
Surprisingly, that is where England’s problems thus far have come, too. Dawid Malan’s lack of intent at No3 left England behind the rate when the rain came against Ireland, after Alex Hales and Buttler failed to get going in the powerplay for a second game in a row, despite coming into the tournament in good touch.
Fail again, and England could be sailing out of it just as fast.