Teams heading in opposite directions
For the past 15 years the World Cup has been remembered very differently by Australia and England. For one it has been a stage to show their supremacy with a hat-trick of titles and the other has frozen at the earliest sight of a challenge, often becoming an embarrassment. However, as the teams prepare for this seven-match series, which acts as their final preparation for the February tournament, the fortunes of the sides are changing.
England are team on the up, in all formats of the game, having retained the Ashes in style, set a world record for consecutive Twenty20 wins and emerged from their one-day slumber with renewed aggression. Australia, while still retaining the No. 1 one-day ranking, have struggled for the past 12 months, losing limited-overs series against England, India and Sri Lanka. The next three weeks will give an indication as to whether the curves will continue in a similar direction even though conditions will be very different on the subcontinent.
Some bookmakers have Australia as favourites to take the one-day series but England should feel confident of claiming another scalp. There is symmetry to this upcoming contest because the corresponding seven games after the 2009 Ashes was England's last series defeat in any format, when they were humbled 6-1.
That was a watershed time for the England one-day team. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss realised something drastic was needed to haul the side from the lower reaches of the one-day rankings, where they sometimes nestled above only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Their inhibited approach, partly to blame on English conditions that reward conservatism against the white ball, had long-since become outdated.
The players were told to believe in themselves and in return the management would trust them. The first clear signs of the new strategy were on show at the Champions Trophy in late September 2009, just a matter of days after the 6-1 drubbing was complete. Nobody expected England to escape their group, however they beat Sri Lanka and South Africa to reach the semi-finals where they met Australia. They were hammered by nine wickets, but tellingly it was the last time Australia had any hold over them.
The fearless approach to batting started with Paul Collingwood attacking Sri Lanka in Johannesburg, then continued with Owais Shah, no longer part of the set-up, hitting 98, and Eoin Morgan's 67 off 34 balls against South Africa. Morgan has been vital to the team's resurgence, bringing inventiveness, power and confidence to free up the rest of the order. The World Cup can be his stage and it was a sign of his talent that, despite barely playing any cricket since September, he could hit 43 off 33 balls in the opening Twenty20 in Adelaide.
Morgan has played match-winning knocks in all of England's recent one-day successes, including hundreds against Bangladesh, Australia and Pakistan, taking over the mantle of the team's key limited-overs player from Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen was dropped for the last series, against Pakistan, and will want to re-establish his credentials but with an in-form Ian Bell and consistent Jonathan Trott there is plenty of healthy competition.
Strauss's role, too, must not be underestimated and in 2010 he scored 806 runs at 57.57. Those numbers, plus innings such as his Gabba hundred and agenda-setting 60 off 58 balls at the SCG, show how his game has evolved and he's fully worth his place in the batting line-up. There remains a spot for an innings anchor, even in the 21st century version of one-day cricket.
England, as has been their style of meticulous planning, are probably sure of their World Cup 15, which has to be named by January 19, after the opening ODI in Melbourne, with just the fitness of Stuart Broad to keep tabs on. However, there remains far more uncertainty in the Australia camp, and they are treating the Melbourne match has a final chance for players to impress.
David Hussey, 33, has been given a last-minute opportunity to earn selection having played his most recent ODI against Scotland in August 2009, while the spinners Xavier Doherty and Nathan Haurtiz are back in the mix along with Brett Lee and Doug Bollinger. In previous years Australia have not left final decisions so late, but life isn't as easy for them these days.
The feeling is that they want to stack their team with pure quick bowlers, including Shaun Tait, but that will be a risky option on the subcontinent. Tait was a revelation at the 2007 World Cup in West Indies with 23 wickets, but he operated alongside the economical Glenn McGrath and Nathan Bracken. The runs-per-over of Lee and Mitchell Johnson is likely to be high, so the spinners and Shane Watson will need to use the seven matches against England to adapt to holding roles.
Injuries have not helped Australia's planning. Clint McKay, the Victoria pace bowler, has been ruled out with a stress fracture and joins Ryan Harris on the sidelines. They would both have been major contenders for the final 15. The captain, Ricky Ponting, is also missing for the series with the finger injury he picked up in the Perth Test and which ruled him out of Sydney. Michael Clarke will lead the side and it's hardly ideal to have a stand-in captain so close to major tournament.
It remains to be seen whether Ponting is Australia's captain when they next play Tests in August, but the chance of four consecutive World Cup titles remains a huge motivation for him. Given their recent record you wouldn't think they have much of a chance, but in the lead-up to the 2007 competition they lost the CB Series finals against England and got beaten 3-0 by New Zealand.
Criticism started about over-training and fatigue, but the sight of that gold trophy brought the best out of Australia, who completed their second consecutive unbeaten World Cup. With the structure of the 2011 tournament they should make the quarter-finals, then it's three wins for the main prize. First, though, they'll be desperate to ensure England don't secure another piece of silverware against them.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo