Expectations are a dish best served managed. Claudio Ranieri would surely agree. The Italian football manager was the architect of one of the greatest miracles in sport, taking Leicester City from the brink of relegation to champions of England and was then binned off nine months later. In Australia, Alan Joyce never missed the finals at Hawthorn, winning premierships at his first two times of asking, yet could not survive at a club that knew only one way.
That principle applied, the Australian women’s cricket team – the artists formerly known as the Southern Stars – have themselves an expectation management problem entering this World Cup. They are a side for whom success is always binary: claim the trophy or return home as failures.
It’s a good problem to have. The defending champions have won six of 10 World Cups held since the inaugural edition in 1973, including two of the last three. Taken as a whole, they have tasted success a remarkable 79% of all their 300 ODIs.
But this time around, the peloton has neared. Australia (and to a lesser extent England) have always been the hunted. Now, more teams than ever have the skills to effect regime change.
Australia’s coach Matthew Mott is acutely aware of this new world. The former state opener has been at the helm since before their successful 2015 Ashes campaign. But he also oversaw their capitulation to the West Indies in last year’s World T20 final in India. The accepted wisdom prevailed: they didn’t finish second – they lost.
“Everyone is really aware of the expectation and of course that is the case when you are No1 ranked side in the world,” Mott says. “But we are under no illusions. This is going to be a very difficult tournament to navigate through.”
Mott wants his charges to embrace the higher degree of difficulty. “It’s a privilege to have that on us,” he says. “And it’s great for world cricket. If you don’t turn up on a particular day then you are up against it. Teams are ready to take each other down.”
By his assessment five sides – New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa joining the aforementioned big two – “genuinely believe” they can lift the trophy at Lord’s on 24 July. And that isn’t to mention India, who stunned England on Saturday, or Pakistan, who came within an over of an astonishing win against the Proteas on Sunday.
Mindful, then, of retaining focus through a more taxing round-robin stage than before, talk of back-to-back titles has been banished. Slipping into football coach mode himself, Mott instead just wants his side to get the required points to qualify for the final four.
“Something we’ve talked a lot about is treating each game in isolation and then to refocus for the next one after that,” he says. “We are starting with the same amount of points as everyone else and we have got to earn the right to get through.”
For personnel, Mott is foreshadowing a “mix and match” approach to selection, drawing on sophisticated analysis of opposing sides they know better than ever. That’s due to the emergence of domestic T20 leagues including the Women’s Big Bash, and the new ICC championship that required bilateral series between all nations ahead of this World Cup.
There have been hints 19-year-old quick Belinda Vakarewa will make her bow in Australia’s opener against West Indies on Monday – Lanning has talked up her “very raw” pace with Mott also effusive in his praise.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, seamer Sarah Aley has done everything asked to earn her own debut at age 33, with four wickets against Pakistan in a warm-up fixture backing up a dominant competition-leading WBBL that won her the plane ticket in the first place.
Spin forms a significant part of Australia’s plans, with No1 legspinner Kristen Beams joined by a second wrist spinner, teen sensation Amanda Wellington, alongside Jess Jonassen who provides solid left-arm orthodox at either end of the innings. That hard-hitting 20-year-old Ashleigh Gardner turns it the other way bolsters her case for inclusion, too.
To make the runs, there is the mighty Lanning. “An extraordinary player” Mott’s assessment of his skipper. In 57 ODIs she has 10 centuries, already more than anyone to play the women’s game. All by age 25. “And as captain she keeps going all the time and is driving it hard,” Mott adds. “Stats don’t lie.”
Her deputy, Alex Blackwell, remains a first-choice middle-order selection in her fourth World Cup and eighth global tournament. “Outstanding support to Meg,” says Mott.
One shuffle paying dividends is Elysse Villani making way at the top of the list down to No5, enjoying her most productive period. A dominant ton came against South Africa in a trial game last week from that position.
The shift freed up a spot for run-machine Beth Mooney to partner established opener Nicole Bolton, the former playing as a specialist bat so Alyssa Healy holds onto the gloves, giving experience to the lower order.
It speaks volumes that a discussion about this team doesn’t reflexively include Elysse Perry before all others. That isn’t to diminish her standing: Perry is at the peak of her powers. But greater consciousness of those around her highlights the maturing discourse around this side and women’s cricket as a whole. Perry we know all about.
Not least the story of her heroics in that 2013 final, blasting through West Indies’ top order while bowling with a broken ankle. It is without peer for courage in this sport, and she remains a vital cog with the ball. Yet it is with bat in hand Perry is a cricketer reborn.
After that 2013 tournament, she rose into the top six, eventually settling at No4. Since that point, she has made her ODI runs at a ridiculous average of 79, with 17 half-centuries.
With focus follows scrutiny, and with every game they play in this tournament televised and broadcast on radio, there will be plenty of both in this first World Cup of the truly professional era. Lanning’s assessment: it’s a new type of pressure they are ready for. With expectations they look ready made to exceed.
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