When administrators wax lyrical about needing greater context for international cricket, series like these are the ones they are talking about. Less than a week after Australia and England concluded their latest bout for cricket’s oldest prize, they are to compete for a sponsor’s trophy that, while a fine piece of work by the silversmith John Flynn, has very little meaning attached to it. Of more significance is the fact that this series begins a run towards next year’s World Cup, with the two competing teams at varying stages of their preparations for a tournament won by Australia at home last time around.
Steven Smith’s home side are entering the series with the dual needs to find a settled side and also re-establish the way they wish to play, having looked a long way off the pace of the world’s pre-eminent limited overs nations for most of 2017. Middle order collapses were central to winning only five of 15 matches last year, and to that end they have dispensed with the services of Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Wade. Mitchell Marsh, Marcus Stoinis and the recalled Cameron White are set to compete for two batting berths, while Tim Paine has the chance to revive his limited-overs career in the same way he has come back into the Test team.
“The middle order is probably where we’ve had a bit of an issue,” Smith said. “Guys up the top have been scoring big runs, the middle order is a key area for us to focus on. We need runs out of that middle order and in particular wickets in hand so we can have an onslaught at the back end. That’s something we haven’t done, we’ve been losing too many wickets in the middle overs and not getting partnerships together and that’s something that we need to work on. That’s a big reason why [Maxwell] is not here at the moment. The selectors said he’s averaged 20 in his last 20 games and we need those runs in the middle. So it’s crucial that we find them. I’m confident that the guys here can do that job.”
England, meanwhile, made an immediate and dramatic change from the stodgy fare they produced for the 2015 World Cup in adopting a far more fearless approach with the bat in particular. Though they were unable to carry that through to a home victory in the Champions Trophy, Eoin Morgan’s team have rather more confidence in themselves in all conditions than the Test team does. Importantly they have greater pace to call on from Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett, and Joe Root can be expected to bat with his old vim now unburdened by the pressures of captaincy.
“We are going with the mantra that we always need to be on top of our game and testing the opposition the whole time,” Morgan said. “We have done that a bit with the bat, we will try and continue taking wickets with the ball. This time next year we need to be in a good enough space to be contenders for the World Cup. To be in that space you need to be setting or bucking trends or being able to adapt. We are very open-minded with the way we are going. Also the best way to address it is to be on the front foot.”
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Much remains to be discovered about how Australia will approach this series, but one certainty is that Travis Head will be batting in the pivotal No. 4 position behind David Warner, Aaron Finch and Smith. A capable leader who at the age of 24 has had plenty of investment in him from the national selectors, Head is also important as a spin bowler through the middle overs. “He’s a player with a really bright future,” Smith said. “He’s captain of his state, he’s got a good cricket brain and we need someone who’s got some smarts there in the middle and play the right brand of cricket at the right time.”
Never quite fit enough to take part in the Ashes, Mark Wood brings greater pace and impact to the England ODI set-up alongside Plunkett. An expensive outing in the team’s only tour match at Drummoyne Oval was not particularly promising, but Wood’s greater velocity was noticeable, and should present a challenge in terms of speed and bounce that Smith, among others, did not have to contend with during the Test matches. “I’d like to prove a point to everyone, to my team-mates and the media, that I can be that X-factor bowler that they want,” Wood said. “That’s my role in the team, to ramp it up and be aggressive and try to take wickets by bowling fast.”
Josh Hazlewood has been rested from the series opener and is not in Melbourne, leaving Australia’s selectors to choose between AJ Tye, Jhye Richardson and Adam Zampa to replace him. Head is set to bat No. 4, with Cameron White in the middle order mix alongside the allrounders Mitchell Marsh and Stoinis. Warner has been suffering from gastro but is expected to be fit.
Australia (probable) 1 David Warner, 2 Aaron Finch, 3 Steven Smith (capt), 4 Travis Head, 5 Mitchell Marsh, 6 Marcus Stoinis, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Adam Zampa, 11 AJ Tye
England’s XI is likely to be similar to the combination that faced a Cricket Australia XI in Sydney in their only warm-up game, with Joe Root back and fit to play after illness, though a choice must be made between Alex Hales and Jason Roy.
England (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jonny Bairstow, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Chris Woakes, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Liam Plunkett, 10 Tom Curran, 11 Mark Wood
Pitch and conditions
Heavy rain fell in Melbourne on match eve, but a cool, fine day is forecast for Sunday. The pitch subject of so much scrutiny during the Boxing Day Test, will likely be a limited-overs surface with plenty of runs in it.
Stats and trivia
England won the most recent ODI meeting between the two teams, by 40 runs on Duckworth Lewis Stern method in Birmingham during the Champions Trophy
Morgan needs 34 runs to surpass Ricky Ponting as the highest run-maker in all ODIs between Australia and England
England’s last ODI at the MCG as their opening World Cup match against Australia in 2015 – a 111-run defeat.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to try and change our one-day cricket a bit. We have probably been hot and cold in the last 18 months and we want to set that right – a good opportunity starting here.”
“I think over the last couple of years we have managed to distinguish between those two formats. We are trying to do two different things, as a Test team and a white-ball group. So I certainly think the mentality in the two groups can have a different effect.”
Eoin Morgan thinks England’s ODI team will be a different proposition to the Ashes