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At first glance, Australia would appear to have a down-hill run into the semi-finals, but their opponents in the remaining two group matches have taken more wickets with spin than pace in this World Cup, and spin in India has created plenty of unsettling moments for Australia.
Victory against either Afghanistan on Tuesday or Bangladesh on Saturday will shore up a place in the play-offs, but that will require negotiating some south Asian mystery.
Before a ball was bowled in the tournament, India lent on that old colloquial saying of deception “come in spinner” to highlight just how susceptible Australia could be against the dark arts of slow bowling.
Veteran spinner Ravi Ashwin has regularly tormented Australia in Test matches, but had hardly played one-day cricket for seven years until he was picked for India’s opening match against Australia. Spin claimed six of the 10 Australian wickets that fell in that match, but Ashwin (1-34 off 10) hasn’t played since.
Four more wickets fell to spin in Australia’s second loss against South Africa, before the Australians righted themselves to go on a five-match winning streak.
Not that the Australia needs reminding of spin’s value in this tournament. Leggie Adam Zampa is the leading wicket-taker with 19.
Afghanistan have been the World Cup surprise, winning four of their past five matches to find themselves now fighting with New Zealand and Pakistan for fourth place.
England’s demise was Afghanistan’s launching pad, and the Australians would be well advised to watch the highlights of that match. The unravelling started when Joe Root played back to the off-spin of Mujeeb Ur Rahman – the slowest opening bowler in the World Cup – only for the ball to clatter into his stumps.
Then, veteran fellow offie Mohammed Nabi bewildered Dawid Malan in flight, producing the simplest of catches to cover.
The Afghanis also have the cheeky Big Bash regular Rashid Khan, a vibrant Eveready Bunny, who constantly challenges batsmen with his zippy, homespun leg-breaks. Now at the age of 25, he has also played 410 matches in Twenty20 franchises around the world.
Even if spin doesn’t get the Australians out, it slows them down. Take Mitch Marsh as exhibit A. This was highlighted when between Travis Head (109 in 67 balls) and David Warner (81 from 65) put on a rampant 175-run opening partnership in just 19.1 overs against New Zealand. They hit 13 sixes and 15 fours between them. Head finished with a strike rate of 163 and Warner 125.
Contrast this with Marsh, who was forced to contend with New Zealand’s spinners after being pushed down to No.3 in the batting order. His 36 runs took 51 balls, and his strike rate of 70 was the equal with Marnus Labuschagne as the lowest of any batsman during Australia’s innings. All other batsmen managed comfortably better than 100.
Part-time Kiwi off-spinner Glenn Phillips claimed 3-37 from his 10 overs, his best bowling in a one-day international. He combined with fellow spinner Mitch Santner to claim the first five Australian wickets, although Santner did receive an early mauling from Head and copped a battering later from Glenn Maxwell.
Afghanistan, Australia’s opponents on Tuesday, have won four of their past five matches.Credit: Getty
Just eight days earlier, Marsh had scored 121 from 108 balls against Pakistan in Bengaluru as part of an opening partnership of 259 in 33.5 overs with Warner (163 in 124 balls). Marsh, Steve Smith and Labuschagne all shuffled down the order following Head’s return.
“It’s an interesting one,” Australia’s batting coach Michael Di Venuto said after that match. “The openers put on a fantastic partnership. It’s more situations rather than the number next to your name. It’s about adapting to the situation when you come in.
“We could be better at that, certainly [adapting in the middle overs], but there was some good bowling from their spinners. There are areas where we can certainly improve.
Marsh averages better than 55 with a strike rate of almost seven an over as an opener when the ball is hard and the field is up for the first 10 overs. But at No.3, when the field is more often pushed back and the spinners are operating with protection on the boundary, he averages 23 at a strike rate under five.
Even during Australia’s victory over England on Saturday night they found the most challenging of the bowlers was wrist-spinner Adil Rashid, and now more challenges are on the way.
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