Spin-heavy attacks a likelihood in Ashes T20I opener
Needing to win all three T20Is to claim the Ashes, England are facing a complication with the uncertainty around Anya Shrubsole's fitness and if she is unfit, the visitors could look to field a markedly spin-heavy attack
"He's a very busy man," Australian captain Rachael Haynes said after Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited her team. He sure is: taking a curtain call yesterday after the successful same-sex marriage survey, this morning honouring the men's football team for qualifying for the World Cup, then straight to North Sydney Oval for this photo-op with the women who can retain their Ashes silverware with a victory on Friday in the opening T20I.
The binary state of the multi-format series - England needing to clean sweep the three T20Is to snatch a come-from-behind win - makes it simple. Haynes, however, stressed she will not be satisfied with a win in the first match alone. "We're not just thinking it's one game away," she emphasised. Instead, they enter the final leg of the Ashes wanting to hammer the visitors.
There isn't much of love lost between the sides, highlighted by Australia coach Matthew Mott stating after the drawn Test - at the same venue on Sunday - that England batted in a way that showed they never much cared about winning. Valid or otherwise, it was punchy.
"We had a little bit of a chuckle about it," responded Mark Robinson, his opposite number. "There's not much you can really say. Sometimes coaches are frustrated at the end of the day when it doesn't quite go how you want it to do. I've been there myself. But I don't really take much notice."
England captain Heather Knight believes her charges have claimed some timely momentum by salvaging a split result after Ellyse Perry's majestic double-hundred. "We fought really hard to get those points in the Test after Australia batted really well," she said. "Everyone is really looking forward to playing T20, getting a red stripey kit on and going out and expressing ourselves. It is the form of the game where you try and play your shots."
To help with that, she has Sarah Taylor in glittering form after stroking an unbeaten 93 off 76 balls on Thursday in a tour game against the Australian Governor-General's XI. "It was really nice to see her in the runs being her usual innovative self," Knight said. "One shot she hit over backward point reverse-sweeping, which is a new one from her."
Robinson quickly added that she has been "outstanding" with the gloves as well. One of the highlights of the Test was her sharp catch to dismiss Elyse Villani up to the stumps off the seam of Anya Shrubsole. "I think it was 140 overs before she let a bye go in that Test Match," he said, "which is incredible."
Knight also pointed to England's record in must-win fixtures - including their successful World Cup run - as proof that they can hold nerve when it matters most. "We have got to concentrate like a knock-out game and take confidence from the fact that we have performed really well in knock-out games over the last year," she said.
A slight complication for the visitors, however, is the fitness of opening bowler Shrubsole, who picked up a hamstring niggle at training on Monday. "Anya is a proven international bowler with a great record, so it is going to be a big decision if she didn't play," Robinson said. The decision on her will be taken after a medical assessment closer to the toss.
Her omission would open the door to a markedly spin-heavy England attack, doubly so given that the T20 will be played on the same drab surface as the Test, where only six wickets fell in the final two days. Both captain and coach declared the most likely scenario is the two Danielles in the squad - Hazell and Wyatt - will both get their first opportunities on tour. The former is currently ranked third in the world for T20 bowlers in the ICC ratings.
"She keeps it simple and she nails what she does," Knight said. "I know they have both been desparate to get out there and contribute to this tour and they want to make an impact and do well and T20 is their preferred format, where they are bankers."
Robinson noted that given 18-year-old left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone's excellent tour to date, she might be hard to leave out - much in the way as World Cup champions Laura Marsh and Alex Hartley. When asked if all four frontline spinners could feature in the XI, Robinson said: "Possibly. And we haven't really used [Wyatt] for the last year as a bowler but she bowls off-spin and the captain has a pretty decent record herself. So, there could be seven spinners at some point."
Haynes, however, is less inclined to make a flurry of changes to her side. "I don't think that we will take four spinners in to be honest," she said. "We'll pick a balanced team and that team will be based on the conditions." She will have plucky Victoria offspinner Molly Strano as a new option, brought into the squad after the Tests.
Australia are yet to finalise their XI in part due to forecasts of rain that could hit Sydney at the worst possible time. But what does appear likely is that 20-year-old excitement machine Ashleigh Gardner will return after being left out for the Test. "She's a really dangerous player in this format and she's been very successful in WBBL batting up the order," Haynes said. The bulk of Gardner's 414 runs in the Women's Big Bash League last year came at No.3 and that could give Haynes the freedom to "play around with our order."
England are expected to adopt a similar approach with Katherine Brunt, recast as a T20 blaster in addition to new ball duties in this year's Kia Super League, where she was the sixth-highest run-getter in the tournament batting from second drop in the Yorkshire list. She batted at No. 5 in the tour game, and Robinson hinted she may again in the main event.
From Sydney, the series will move to Canberra, the nation's capital, for the last two T20Is. If the hosts finish off the job between in the first T20I, they can expect an invite to join PM Turnbull at his place of work.