Maxwell's bowling helps Australia make their balancing act work - 5 minutes read
Australia are finding a way. As the group stage of the World Cup nears its halfway mark the defending champions are at the top of the table. They face Bangladesh next and if they win it will take them to 10 points, which could already be enough for a semi-final spot before the tougher challenges of New Zealand and England.
The match against Sri Lanka, won by 87 runs after they quelled an early onslaught by the openers, ended a run of four matches in ten intense days for Australia as they dodged the rain which dogged the last week of the tournament. None of the wins have been perfect, even the ultimately comfortable margin of the latest success coming with further questions about the middle order. Still, they are digging deep into their resources having been forced to rejig the side in the absence of Marcus Stoinis.
The century for Aaron Finch and four-wicket haul for Mitchell Starc took the headlines on Saturday, but the all-round performance of Glenn Maxwell was a crucial part of ensuring the holes that remain in the Australia side did not prove pivotal. His 46 off 25 balls meant that while the final total was probably 20 runs light of where it could have been, momentum was not totally lost at the death.
WATCH on Hotstar (India only) - Maxwell's rapid 46
Then, perhaps more importantly given the questions of balance, he was able to bowl his ten overs for 46 runs despite Sri Lanka having a terrific platform to build on. That might say more about the issues in Sri Lanka's batting, but the use of Maxwell's bowling - which he had the opportunity to use extensively during his time with Lancashire earlier in the season - has been one of the significant developments in Australia's one-day side over the last few months.
Until March he had not bowled his full 10 overs in an ODI since 2015 - the year he was played as Australia's lone spinner for the majority of their successful World Cup campaign - with Steven Smith preferring Travis Head's offspin in the last couple of years of his captaincy. Now he has sent down his quota four times in his last 14 matches, three times going for less than fifty. In this match, he bowled 15 dot balls to Dimuth Karunaratne who could only strike at 71 against him and of the batsmen to face more than one delivery from him, only Kusal Mendis could take him for a run-a-ball. There was no need for Finch or Smith to take their net bowling into the middle.
"I think Smithy obviously rated Heady's bowling a little bit more, and that's fine. That happens. That's an on-the-day decision. I think [Maxwell] has done really well when he's had the opportunity," Finch said. "He was a big part of us reining it in today. Two lefties, he had a nice breeze to bowl with, to across, which allowed him to drift the ball quite a bit which made it - made it, he could shut down one side of the ground a bit easier."
With a decision being made on Stoinis before the next match - and Mitchell Marsh waiting in the wings - Australia's XI for the Bangladesh game will be interesting given they will have a seam-bowling allrounder to again pick from if needed. The last two matches have seen them go with four quicks, leaving Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon on the sidelines.
The attack continues to lean very heavily on Starc and Pat Cummins - currently the top two wicket-takers in the tournament - and the next few days is a chance for them to catch their breath with Australia's final four group matches spread over the last two weeks of qualifying. There may even be the chance for some rotation if things continue to go to plan ahead of the semi-finals, but Starc does not want to be part of that.
"We spoke about that before this fixture and wanted to give as much as we could to get the result then have a little bit more relaxed back end to the tournament where we can perhaps have a few more training days or if we need some days we can factor that in as well," he said. "Ultimately is not up to me but it's a World Cup and you have to pick your best XI depending on the conditions and opposition but I definitely won't be putting up my hand up to rest."
WATCH on Hotstar (India only) - Maxwell's rapid 46
Having been Player of the Tournament in 2015, Starc is again proving a World Cup trump card with a five-wicket and four-wicket haul already under his belt. "For me I just try to keep my white-ball game very simple," he said. "I don't have all these variations. I'm pretty clear on what I want to do whether it's new ball, old ball or through the middle.
"What I've added is able to play different roles against different teams or in different conditions. I might go for more runs but I'm there to make a breakthrough in short, sharp spells. That's something that has stayed consistent in my one-day cricket. Whether my game suits that, I don't know. Test cricket is still the pinnacle but the fact I've kept my game plan pretty simple in white-ball cricket has kept me in good stead through World Cups and when times haven't gone so well."
Top of the table with the leading wicket-taker and leading run-scorer is a handy position to be in. Have Australia convinced they can be champions again? Perhaps not, but while they keep winning that doesn't really matter.