BIRMINGHAM: For England to advance to the World Cup final in front of their own fans, Australia must do something they have never done before in seven previous semi-finals at the tournament — lose.
Five-time champions Australia and six-time semi-finalists England meet on Thursday at Edgbaston in an eagerly-awaited match with the winners playing New Zealand in the final at Lord’s on Sunday.
An England team with no serious injury concerns goes into the Birmingham game on the back of convincing wins against India and New Zealand but it also proved unexpectedly vulnerable earlier in the league stage with losses to Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia.
Despite the high-stakes game, England captain Eoin Morgan is determined to still enjoy it.
“You can lose sight of the fact ... you are living your dream,” Morgan said. “I don’t think it is impossible to play with a smile on your face.”
Barely two weeks ago, Australia ripped through England’s batters with left-arm quicks Jason Behrendorff (5-44) and Mitchell Starc (4-43) virtually unplayable in a 64-run win which saw England all out for 221.
That’s the wrong way of looking at it for England’s Joe Root, who failed to make double digits in that game and was trapped leg before by Starc, the tournament’s leading wicket taker with 26.
Root prefers to use his own numbers. “If you look at the past 11 games against them we have won nine,” the England star batsman. “These guys and this group over the last four years, their experience against Australia have been very positive and they have got a lot of success in the bank ... we will be drawing on that confidence that, over a long period of time now, we have been successful against Australia and we should take that into Thursday.”
On the threat posed by Starc and Behrendorff, Root said England’s players had ‘faced a lot of left arm stuff’ over their careers and that the pressure also was on Australia’s bowlers. “It works both ways.”
Morgan was more measured than Root, saying: “We can practice as much as we can against left-armers, but we need to deliver tomorrow [Thursday].”
Just to be in with a sniff of the final is an achievement of sorts for England, who had to win their last two games against Virat Kohli’s India at Edgbaston and 2015 finalists New Zealand to guarantee their first semi-final spot since 1992.
England are playing their sixth semi-final, losing in 1975 and 1983 when they hosted the tournament. England reached the final in 1979 when they also hosted 1987 and 1992, losing to West Indies, Australia and Pakistan, respectively.
But England fans and players expect much more this time round from the top-ranked one-day outfit which was rebuilt in exhilarating style after a humiliating group-stage exit at the 2015 tournament.
Root’s team-mate, Liam Plunkett, missed England’s three league-stage defeats in 2019 but said losing had helped the team.
“We had a few bad games and went away from our style of cricket, but I feel like we’ve caught that in time,” the 34-year-old seamer said. “We’re back to playing our best brand of cricket and we can still improve. I feel like we had a wobble at the right time, a bit of a blip, and it’s made us stronger.”
Australia won the tournament in 1987, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2015. They were the first team to qualify for this edition’s semi-finals but finished second to India after losing to South Africa in their last match.
“I think World Cups are very special, they bring out the best in the best players, so I think that’s why Australia have had a very rich history in World Cups,” Australia captain Aaron Finch said. “I mean, winning four of the last five, it’s been a great achievement.”
Australia coach Justin Langer said right-handed batsman Peter Handscomb will start the semi-final against England in his World Cup debut after Usman Khawaja injured his left hamstring on Saturday against South Africa.
“Peter will definitely play, 100 percent,” Langer said.
The result will in large part be determined by the battle of the openers. Australia’s Finch and David Warner average 55 for the opening wicket. England’s Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy have shared a century partnership for the last three games they have been at the crease together.
Both teams will want to win the toss, and neither will want to chase in a tournament which has heavily favoured the side batting first.
“I expect a good cricket-wicket, something that will be probably batter friendly if you had to choose between the two,” Finch said.
England and Australia have a longstanding rivalry in all sports, especially cricket, with usually good-natured teasing on both sides. After Australia had been dismissed for just 60 in a 2015 Ashes Test, one shop owner in Wales put out a roadside sign saying: “For sale: Australian cricket bats. Hardly used.”
That’s unlikely to be the case on Thursday.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2019