The Super 12 stage of the T20 World Cup starts on Saturday with a rematch between last year’s finalists, Australia and New Zealand.
Australia goes into not only the match, but the entire tournament, as the favourite to become the first ever nation to win the men’s world title back-to-back.
But should Australia be considered favourite, or are there are nations more deserving of the title?
And is a familiar Australian foe primed to leave another mark on what is already an outstanding legacy?
All this and more in our T20 World Cup Burning Questions.
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WILL AUSTRALIA MAKE HISTORY?
Everyone outside of the Australia camp has been eager to write the hosts in as favourites to win this tournament.
It has to be an exercise in gamesmanship because it’s certainly no where near that clear cut.
The fickle nature of T20 cricket is a big reason for that. Anything can happen, especially in the finals stage.
Ironically, Australia knows that awfully well having been far from the favourites to win last year in the UAE, where they started the tournament ranked seventh in the world.
Australia was then twice on the brink of elimination, but scraped through its pool on net run rate before a crucial drop of Matthew Wade proved to be the difference in a semi-final escape act against Pakistan.
The truth is Australia is simply an all-too-convenient pick as tournament favourite.
That’s because Australia is the defending champion, and is only 11 months removed from the night Aaron Finch hoisted the silverware into the Dubai night sky. Furthermore. there has been very little personnel change, there are no injury concerns, and the team is now on home soil.
It’s hard to deny it all looks very good on paper but any cricket fan, especially T20 enthusiasts, will know that that counts for very little.
Go deeper and there are plenty of reasons to have reservations about Australia winning the T20 World Cup back-to-back.
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WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?
For starters, no one has ever defended a men’s T20 world crown.
True that there is normally a longer break between tournaments, but even then, it’s traditionally only a two-year gap with the exception of the chasm between the 2016 and 2021 editions.
There’s a reason no nation has gone back-to-back. It’s damn hard to do when the target is on your back, and the expectations are raised, while playing a format of the game where the margin for error is razor thin.
There are also doubts about Australia’s ability to regularly post big totals — something which its biggest rivals are capable of, especially in conditions where the ball will come onto the bat better.
In the past 12 months, Australia has batted first eight times with a highest score of 7-186. Australia only won two of those matches.
Australia has won 14 of 16 matches when chasing, although only one of those wins came chasing a total worth more than 180.
That record may not seem awfully alarming until you look at Australia’s most recent fixtures.
Australia lost back-to-back T20s against England by eight runs, failing to chase down 208 in Perth and 178 in Canberra.
In Brisbane on Monday, Australia looked in control chasing India’s 7-186 until the wheels fell off in worrying fashion.
Australia was 2-144 after 15 overs, needing 8.60 runs-an-over to win with eight wickets in hand, before losing Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis to give India an inroad.
The hosts were then 4-171 after 18 overs, needing just 16 more runs to win when it all went horribly wrong. Australia lost 2-5 in the 19th over, and then 4-4 in the 20th to somehow be bowled out for 180.
“We learnt you’ve got to be really clinical toward the back end of the innings,” Finch said after play. “It’s something where we haven’t capitalised in the past three or four chances we’ve had to chase down totals.”
Meanwhile, there are small concerns around Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis.
The trio hasn’t made the runs it would’ve liked during the long lead-in to the tournament.
Finch fell so deeply out of form in ODI cricket that he decided to retire, while his T20 record has been made to look much better by a timely 76 against India on Monday.
Before that, his most recent T20 scores were 0, 13, 12 and 15, which came after a 58 against the West Indies.
Stoinis and Maxwell have struggled for runs, too, averaging 15.33 and 10.54 in white ball cricket since August, while neither player has made a score worth more than 35.
WHY IS AUSTRALIA STILL FAVOURITE?
Nonetheless, Australia is undoubtedly in a stronger position at the start of the tournament than it was a year ago when it won.
The expected XI is stronger with the inclusion of Tim David — the type of middle-order dynamo that Australia long-considered to be the missing piece of its T20 puzzle.
David Warner and Matthew Wade are in outstanding form and Mitch Marsh looks raring to go after a stint in the casualty ward.
Meanwhile, facing Australia’s quicks Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc is a scary proposition in home conditions, where they can better use their height and experience on fast wickets to their advantage.
Adding to that lethal attack is Adam Zampa, who remains one of the strongest, and most consistent, leg spinners in international white ball cricket.
Former India captain and coach Ravi Shastri said “there’s no question” that Australia start the tournament as favourites.
“They’re defending champions, they’re playing at home. The nucleus of the team is pretty much the same,” he told foxsports.com.au this week. “They’ve got a lot of players who have come back from injury, like Mitchell Marsh and Marcus Stoinis, and they’ve got some real exciting talent there.
“I just saw Australia in India and they have the firepower, and especially in Australian conditions.
“The attack that they have with the tall, fast bowlers, they’ve got the tools to exploit those conditions and so, for me, they start as favourites.”
He also dismissed the concerns around Finch and Maxwell, saying that players of their quality will find their way in familiar conditions.
“I would have concerns if it was in any other country but when you go back to your backyard, a terrain you know well, sometimes it changes things very quickly,” Shastri said.
“So don’t be surprised if both of them, they’re both matchwinners, come to the party very soon.”
Australia also has some important depth to its squad.
Any team that can afford to have Steve Smith sitting on the bench must be doing something right, while Cameron Green adds tremendous coverage across a number of roles.
SHOULD AUSSIES BE WORRIED ABOUT THE POMS?
In short, yes — although this team isn’t as strong as it could be.
England is missing the injured Jonny Bairstow, who had just found career-best form during the home summer, blasting white ball runs against South Africa, and red ball runs against India.
In another major blow, fast bowler Reece Topley was ruled out of the tournament this week after rolling his ankle during fielding drills.
He’ll miss out along with the long-term injured Jofra Archer, who, after 18 months, will make his comeback with the England Lions next month.
Even so, England shows no signs of slowing down.
The nation’s batting line-up is explosive, featuring Jos Buttler, Alex Hales, Dawid Malan, Liam Livingstone, Ben Stokes, Harry Brook and Moeen Ali.
Ali, Malan and Brook all average more than 35 and are striking above 140 for England in 2022, while Buttler’s strike rate is a whopping 179.54 with an average of 29.62.
Hales and Livingstone have slightly more subdued numbers, but have plenty of experience in Australian conditions where they have starred in the BBL.
Malan, meanwhile, has been in scary form, averaging 70.33 from his past five matches, while Brook has been picked by Fox Cricket experts Kerry O’Keeffe, Mel Jones and Brad Haddin as the breakout star of the tournament.
Then there’s the Stokes factor, which should not be underestimated. The all-rounder has only played three T20Is this year with preparation for this year’s World Cup among his priorities.
In the past two years, England leads the way for winning matches with 200+ totals when batting first, having done it eight times — one more than India and New Zealand. Australia has only done it twice in that period.
England has gone past 200 three more times when batting second, winning once, the same as Australia.
With the ball, England’s pace attack still looks strong without the injured Topley with David Willey, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Mark Wood showing what they can do in the three-match series against Australia.
Curran was a handful with five wickets at 12.00, Woakes made the most of just four overs by taking three wickets at 8.33, while Wood also snared three at 11.33.
INDIA’S SHOT AT REDEMPTION AFTER TRAINWRECK
India’s 2021 campaign ended in disaster when it suffered the insurmountable blows of losing to Pakistan and New Zealand in its opening two matches.
Despite being tournament favourites, the nation entered the match with a negative mindset and was accused by Michael Vaughan of “playing 2010 cricket”.
The vibe this time around is distinctively different with India in red-hot form, eager to atone for last year’s trainwreck.
India has played a staggering amount of T20 cricket this year, featuring in 32 games — nine more than anyone — and winning 23 of those.
Only New Zealand has a better win-loss ratio in 2022 having won 12 of 15 matches, although seven of those wins came against Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands.
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Central to India’s dominance has been its tremendous batting depth — 10 players have made more than 200 runs with averages above 25 this year — the continued rise of Suryakumar Yadav (average 40.05, SR 184.56) and Virat Kohli’s resurgence.
True that Kohli never truly dropped off in T20 cricket, but his form since the Asia Cup should have his rivals worried.
Since the start of that tournament, Kohli has made 404 runs at 57.71 with a strike rate of 141.75.
His haul includes an unbeaten 122 against Afghanistan, which marked the end of a 1,021-day century drought in international cricket.
Kohli also has a love-hate relationship with Australia, where he has enjoyed a great success and thrived off being the villain.
On top of his great Test record — he’s scored six centuries in Australia — Kohli averages a whopping 64.42 playing T20s down under.
“I think he will be ready to go because nothing charges and fires him up like playing in Australia,” Shastri said.
“He loves playing in front of Australian crowds, he loves the tracks, he’s got a great track record to boost that kind of effort, and I think he’ll be ready to go.
“And with big players, they rise to the occasion when the big tournament surfaces, so I expect to see a lot of Virat Kohli in this World Cup.”
India is not without a couple major concerns, however.
The side is missing star all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja and gun quick Jasprit Bumrah through injury.
Shastri described the two omissions as “massive”. Jadeja is crucial to India’s balance as well as being one of the world’s best fielders, while arguably no fast bowler has as many tools in his arsenal as Bumrah.
The India great said the experience the two players have in Australia means they will be sorely missed.
“They’re world class cricketers but they have the experience of playing in Australia. They’ve been around the team for the last five, six years,” he said. “India has toured Australia frequently in those five, six years, and these two guys were integral parts of those teams.
“So not having Jadeja as an all-rounder, and especially with the kind of fielder he is, will be a big loss, as will Bumrah, who is probably one of the best around in this format of the game.”
Making up for some of that experience is the inclusion of veteran Mohammad Shami, who took just one over to hit the ground running in Australia this week.
He bowled the final over in a warm-up match against Australia and didn’t just defend 11 runs to win the game — he took 4-4 to skittle the hosts.
Shastri said he was “very, very surprised” that Shami wasn’t in the squad initially.
“But I’m glad he’s back because people will tell you you need pace in Australia, but what I think is the most important thing is having the experience to pick the right lengths in Australia, because of the pace and the bounce you can easily get carried away,” he said.
“You’ve got to hit the right areas and that can come with experience to get the best results.”