Big contenders on show as India look to halt Australia's charge - 6 minutes read
It began exactly three months ago, in Ranchi. Coming into that game, Australia had won only eight of their last 33 ODIs going back to the start of 2017, and were still coming to terms with their two best batsmen serving a year-long ban. Their captain Aaron Finch was struggling to buy a run, and India's fast bowlers, away and at home, had been ruthlessly zoning in on his frailties against the incoming ball.
India had just beaten Australia 2-1 in an ODI series in their own backyard, and were leading the five-match return series 2-0.
Everything turned around in Ranchi, where Finch made 93 in a 32-run win for Australia. Since that innings, Finch has averaged 71.44. Since that match, Australia have won ten ODIs on the bounce, the last two at this World Cup with a full-strength squad including David Warner and Steven Smith.
This Australian resurgence has challenged what had been a pretty set narrative in the months preceding the World Cup, that England and India would be the teams to beat, with the rest trailing some way behind. Nope, Australia have snarled. We're here too.
And, in their most recent game against West Indies, they did that most Australian thing, that don't-kid-yourselves-thinking-we're-beaten thing. Think Mohali, 1996, or Headingley, 1999, or Port Elizabeth, 2003. The fear factor is back.
Their opponents on Sunday, however, won't be scared. India occupy a different level of ODI pedigree to the two teams Australia have beaten at this tournament so far. Their batsmen aren't going to get out slogging when the required rate is under control, as West Indies' did. Their bowlers, you suspect, wouldn't have let them turn 79 for 5 to 288 all out. India will give Australia plenty to worry about - if not fear - themselves. Jasprit Bumrah is bowling like a demon, the wristspinners are whirring away menacingly, Rohit Sharma has begun his tournament with a match-winning hundred, and Virat Kohli is, well, Virat Kohli.
This World Cup has already seen some fine contests. We've seen Pakistan defy expectations against England, Bangladesh methodically dismantle South Africa, West Indies rattle Australia, and New Zealand wobble alarmingly against Bangladesh. But we haven't yet seen a clash of the big contenders. Sunday will be just that.
Australia WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Usman Khawaja's form leading up to the World Cup - five fifties and two hundreds in his last ten innings, at the top of the order - prompted Australia to push him to No. 3 and leave out Shaun Marsh to accommodate David Warner and Steven Smith. His first two innings at the tournament, however, have brought him scores of 15 and 13, and awkward dismissals on both occasions. Can he turn his form around against one of the best bowling attacks in the world?
India's last ODI visit to The Oval wasn't a happy one, but their defeat in the Champions Trophy final included one incredible innings: Hardik Pandya's 43-ball 76, with six sixes and a control percentage of 100. Pandya was out injured during India's recent home series against Australia, and his subsequent return to fitness and peak hitting form has been one of the team's biggest positives going into the World Cup.
Australia have played the same XI in both their games so far, and though some of their players haven't hit top form just yet, there isn't a compelling reason to make any changes just yet.
Australia (probable): 1 David Warner, 2 Aaron Finch (capt), 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Glenn Maxwell, 6 Marcus Stoinis, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Nathan Coulter-Nile, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Mitchell Starc, 11 Adam Zampa
Given Australia's troubles against the short ball against West Indies, India could look to bring Mohammed Shami - who can hurry batsmen with the bouncer, as he showed during a six-wicket haul in the Perth Test in December - into their attack. Who could he come in for, though? Bhuvneshwar Kumar would be the obvious option, but without him India's tail will begin at No. 8, unless they also replace one of the wristspinners with Ravindra Jadeja. Playing all three quicks could also be an option, if the conditions point in that direction.
India (probable): 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 KL Rahul, 5 MS Dhoni (wk), 6 Kedar Jadhav, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 9 Kuldeep Yadav, 10 Jasprit Bumrah, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal
Pitch and conditions
The Oval has been among the most high-scoring grounds in England since the 2015 World Cup, and a flat pitch can be expected once again. The weather is expected to be dry with a bit of wind about.
If Australia go in with the same team balance they chose against West Indies, they'll again need Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis to share the fifth bowler's quota. Given that they're likeliest to bowl the bulk of their overs through the middle Powerplay (11-40), India could think of promoting Hardik Pandya to No. 5, if they're in a position to do so, and take advantage of having only four fielders protecting the boundary. Apart from Maxwell and Stoinis, it would also put pressure on Adam Zampa, who has suffered at Pandya's six-hitting hands in the past.
One way for Australia to use up a couple of Maxwell's overs could be to give him the new ball. Shikhar Dhawan has been out six times to offspin in ODIs since the start of 2018, and averages 22.50 against that style of bowling in that period.
Stats and trivia
Australia have an 8-3 record against India in the World Cup, and have only lost once in seven meetings - the 2011 quarter-final in Ahmedabad - since the 1992 edition.
Australia (11 out of 11) and India (5 out of 5) are the only two teams to have taken 100% of their catches at the World Cup so far.
Apart from the middle overs, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have also been a valuable source of wickets in the early death overs (41-45). Chahal has 18 wickets at an average of 14.27 in this phase, while conceding just 5.39 per over. Kuldeep has been almost as impressive: 16 wickets, an average of 18.12, and an economy rate of 6.49.
Marcus Stoinis needs 18 runs to get to 1000 in ODIs.
"Winning those last three games in India gave us some self-belief we can beat this side in their home conditions and that gives us real confidence coming into a game like this."
Australia captain Aaron Finch
"See, short ball for any batsman is not easy. Even the best guy who can pull the ball, who can hook the ball, will find it difficult. We understand that. And probably we have the bowling attack to do that. Having said that, you don't want to be carried away with that."
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