Champions Trophy 2013 June 6, 2013

Defending champions face stiff test

Overview

Unlike the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there isn't much global silverware currently held by the Australians. But the Champions Trophy is still in their possession, and has been since 2006. Whether it remains theirs depends on how Michael Clarke and his men handle the next few weeks. And they will need to come to grips with the conditions better than they did during their ODI series in England last year, when they were trounced 4-0. It was their heaviest ever defeat in a bilateral one-day series. Notably, though, their best batsman on that trip was George Bailey, who has been promoted to vice-captain for this Champions Trophy.

The challenge for Australia is to keep their eyes on the immediate prize, rather than letting their minds wander to the upcoming Ashes series, in which seven members of the Champions Trophy squad will be taking part. Clarke has spoken of the importance of the one-day tournament in giving Australia confidence ahead of the Ashes, although the four-day warm-up games against Somerset and Worcestershire will be of greater relevance. Still, they will be especially happy if one or two players who have struggled in Test cricket of late - Shane Watson and Phillip Hughes, for example - take the chance to pile up some runs ahead of the Tests, regardless of format.

The Australians have selected a very different squad from that which bowed out in the quarter-finals of the most recent major ODI tournament, the 2011 World Cup. Gone are Ricky Ponting, Brad Haddin, Michael and David Hussey, Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and others. In their place are an exciting group of multi-skilled young men who should form part of the national limited-overs team for many years to come, such as James Faulkner, Mitchell Marsh, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Glenn Maxwell. Whether they can display the consistency to win a major tournament is the big question.

Key player

At the last Champions Trophy, Shane Watson started slowly - he made ducks in his first two games, but finished with the biggest bang imaginable, with unbeaten centuries in the semi-final against England and the final against New Zealand. Australia's Test side has suffered due to Watson's lack of runs in the past two years, but he has remained reasonably productive in the limited-overs format. His IPL form - 543 runs at 38.78 - was encouraging as well. Ahead of the Ashes it will also be important for Watson to continue increasing his bowling workload after resuming in the IPL.

Surprise package

It is starting to look as if 2013 might be James Faulkner's breakout year. Faulkner, 23, made his ODI debut against West Indies in February and proved himself a capable and feisty bowling allrounder. That should have been no surprise, for Faulkner has won the Ricky Ponting Medal as Tasmania's best player in each of the past three seasons, which has been a period of exceptional strength for the state side. A left-arm medium-fast bowler with a good change of pace, Faulkner continued his strong year by sitting second on the IPL wicket tally with 28 at 15.25 for Rajasthan Royals. After being named in the Ashes squad earlier this year, Faulkner said he had never been to England. The Australians are hoping he takes an immediate liking to the surroundings.

Weakness

As in Test cricket, the moving ball remains a problem for Australia's batsmen, which was clear during the one-dayers in England last year. Never was it more obvious, though, than during their disastrous 74-all-out batting first against Sri Lanka at the Gabba in January, when Nuwan Kulasekara and Lasith Malinga ran through them in 26.4 overs. Five days earlier they had been skittled for 170. Watson, David Warner, Phillip Hughes, Clarke and Bailey are potentially a very strong top five, but they will face swinging conditions in this tournament. How they handle them will not only determine their success in the Champions Trophy, but will provide a pointer to the Ashes.

Champions Trophy history

In 2009, Ponting led Australia to the title in South Africa, successfully defending the prize they had won by beating West Indies in India in 2006. In fact, not since the days when the tournament was called the ICC Knock Out - back in 2000 - have Australia failed to reach the semi-finals. They enter the tournament on an eight-match Champions Trophy winning streak, having last been defeated by West Indies in their opening game of the 2006 edition.

Recent form

Australia sit third on the ICC one-day international rankings and the 2012 battle against England was the only series they have lost since the 2011 World Cup. However, they were pushed at home by Sri Lanka earlier this year and had to settle for a 2-2 series, before they swept a listless West Indies 5-0.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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