Australia overcome past bruises with eye on World T20

Australia pose with the trophy AFP

The nine-time world champions came to India with their pride bruised after relinquishing both limited-overs titles in successive years. As if embarking on their first overseas assignment - since being knocked out in the semi-final of the World Cup last July - in the absence of their most-capped international player and, with a captain returning from a major injury, wasn't enough.

But Australia began the tour with a 3-0 sweep of the hosts in the ODIs. They dominated the T20I tri-series, restricting their opposition to totals of 152 or less in four out of five matches. And they were unstoppable in the final against England. This rousing display - with both bat and ball - was exactly what Meg Lanning and her team wanted with the World T20 coming up in November.

"We were in such a good space throughout the series and it is nice to top off for the hard work that we've done," Lanning said after Australia's first T20I series win in three years. "[It was] Probably our most complete performance of the tournament. We had to make sure we finish it well."

Lanning was coming back after a seven-month lay-off from international cricket and was understandably below par in the ODIs, making only 75 runs in three innings. But she began showing signs of her unmistakable talent in the T20I tri-series and by the time the final came around, there was an air of inevitability about what was to come. On Saturday, the Australian captain made her second-highest T20I score smashing 88 not out off only 45 balls.

"I was sort of getting back into it in the one-dayers," Lanning said. "The T20 format kind of suited [my needs]. I could just come out and play freely. It allowed me to spend a little bit more time in the middle. And once I got going, I felt comfortable again. I was able to keep attacking and play my strokes."

Players from all three teams, including India medium-pacer Jhulan Goswami and England captain Heather Knight, have stated the new playing conditions, which came into effect in 2017, mandating the presence of only four fielders outside the ring, have titled the advantage in the batsman's favour even further. But the exhibition Lanning put on during her 54-minute stay at the crease wasn't a simple exploitation of the rules.

In a demonstration of how to identify improbable angles on either side of the wicket, Lanning pierced near-non-existent gaps between long-leg and deep square leg. She plundered the arc spanning cover and backward point with an array of ingenious strokes and, all told, amassed 16 fours - two fewer than her personal best of 18. The strike-rate she generated - 195.53 - was superior to all her previous innings.

"The key is to be clear where your strength areas are and try to hit the ball. With only the four fielders [on the boundary], you don't have to hit the ball hard all the time," Lanning said. "It's about placement. For me, probably that's what it is about as opposed to trying to hit sixes all the time. I was clear where I wanted to go to and I was able to go to my strengths."

"It's exciting. It's a great round of cricket that everyone is playing. It's fun to be playing in and hopefully it is a spectacle for the watcher as well." Meg Lanning on the new rules for women's T20Is

In keeping with the team's new credo to "constantly play aggressive cricket", she anchored Australia's joint second-highest fourth-wicket stand, of 139, with fellow half-centurion Elyse Villani, at 11.58 runs per over. "We had to take a couple of overs to rebuild that a little bit. We still wanted to keep attacking. All we were speaking about was being very clear with our plans and knowing with each bowler coming on to bowl, where our go-to areas were. It was different for both of us. Out there, you don't need to hit the ball too hard."

Australia's title-winning campaign was about more than just dominant batting though. Three days after becoming the first Australian woman to take a hat-trick, fast bowler Megan Schutt consolidated her claim for the No. 1 position on the ICC bowling rankings.

In a series where four of the top ten T20I totals were racked up - two by Australia alone - and the average economy rate was 8.11, Schutt gave away only 6.28 runs per over - the best among anyone who bowled five overs or more. In the Powerplay during the final, even when England went at 8.16, Schutt churned out seven dot balls in her two overs. Her reintroduction in the 18th over earned her three wickets for nine runs and she eventualy finished with career-best figures of 4-0-14-3, without conceding a single boundary.

"The greatest thing about Schutter is that she can bowl at the start, in the middle overs and in the death," Lanning said. "So it only depends on where we need her; [I] think we controlled them well in the middle there. You always felt like they are probably only a very good over from getting back into it. So we wanted to make sure we kept the foot on. And Schutter came in the end and finished the job off.

In conditions where the hosts' spinners struggled to find their footing - only Ashleigh Gardner finished among the top five wicket-takers - Schutt's cutters and round-arm slower balls were testimony to an ever-increasing arsenal of variations, even after shortening of her run-up.

"Unexpected is a better word," Schutt said about finishing on top of the wickets chart and earning the distinction of Player of the Series. "But it is pretty pleasing. I didn't know I had picked up so many wickets when I was out there. In T20, a lot is about the economy-rate. I was trying to use the conditions as much as I can and try and take as much pace off the ball as I could."

Schutt bowled more overs than anyone in the series - 17.4 - and Lanning was especially pleased with the fast bowler's ability to think on her feet. "Megan has looked to adapt her game and try new things. We've been sort of forced into that. As a bowler, in these conditions, you sort of need to be able to take that head on and be pro-active and that's probably been the best thing.

"She has tried new things that we haven't done before. We have had plans and if you are able to execute that, we'll be successful. That's been the key to her. And here, you get the sort of result when you do that."

Australia might have felt compelled to win this series since they will not be playing any T20Is until September - two months prior to the start of the World T20 - when they host New Zealand. And Lanning was pleased with the show they put on.

"The game has changed massively in the last year," she said. "Obviously, the four fielders outside make a massive difference. We've had batter-friendly conditions out here and it's hard to tell if that's the highest we're going to be at but people are looking now to take the game on and push the envelope. It's exciting. It's a great round of cricket that everyone is playing. It's fun to be playing in and hopefully it is a spectacle for the watcher as well."

While the cacophony in the fallout of the ball-tampering incident involving the Australian men's team has been deafening, Lanning ensured that the attention remained focused where it should be. "As a group, we've just been focusing on what we can do [to wrap up a double series win here in India]," Lanning said, "and the group has done that very well and we haven't worried about anything else other than trying to execute and try and play the cricket that we want to. It's pleasing that we've been able to do that.