Big picture

For all the historical success Australia have had at the 50-over World Cup, winning the event five times, they have a woeful record in the T20 version having made the semi-finals just three times with a best finish of runners-up back in 2010. Australia have grappled with how best to plan and prepare to claim the elusive title. They appeared to have finally stumbled upon the right formula in the lead-up to the initial 2020 edition, that was set to be held in Australia, with a settled squad claiming four series wins in a row in 2019-20 to reach the No.1 ranking in the format for the first time. But the Covid-19 pandemic postponed that event and has created chaos in terms of unsettling that team.

They still have genuine match-winners in Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Starc and two all-time greats in T20I cricket in David Warner and Aaron Finch, however the opening duo enter the tournament under form and fitness clouds respectively.

The attack features high-quality pace bowlers in Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood and experienced spinners in Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar, while they also have powerful allrounders in Mitchell Marsh and Marcus Stoinis as well as the experienced Steven Smith.

But the major issue for coach and selector Justin Langer is trying to ensure the sum of the parts adds up to more than the individual talent combined. Australia has had a history of trying to fit square pegs in round holes, particularly in the batting department, and there is a lack of T20 specialists in this squad which could expose them in conditions that have often proved their undoing.

Recent form

Having ascended to world No.1 in May of 2020, Australia have slumped to seventh on the ICC rankings after losing five consecutive T20I series and winning just six of their past 21 matches. They have only been at full strength in one of those, which was the first of the losing streak in England in September last year, and without a collapse in game one they might have won that series.

Thereafter they have been undermanned with Warner and Cummins playing none of the next four series while Smith has missed the last three, Maxwell, Stoinis and Kane Richardson the last two, and Finch was absent the recent defeat in Bangladesh. Australia lost both of their most recent series 4-1 to West Indies and Bangladesh. There were complaints from within the camp about the pitches in Bangladesh in terms of how foreign and far removed they were from what will be served up in the UAE, but Australia were uncompetitive despite still having a near full-strength bowling attack and upon returning home some discontent with the coach emerged.

The only shining light on the recent tours was the form of Marsh at No.3, however, it has caused more problems than it has solved given Australia has a lot of good top three batters and a dearth of middle-order specialists.

Batting

Marsh's form and Maxwell's prolific IPL gives Australia some cause for optimism with the bat but the mix is unbalanced. Marsh moving to No.3, despite a superior domestic record at No.5, leaves Smith and Matthew Wade in no man's land. Warner and Finch are set to open, but Wade's best value is at the top while Smith is the safest player against spin but lacks the explosiveness of Marsh or Stoinis. Smith looks set to float depending on the situation. He will be promoted if there are early wickets in the Powerplay and demoted if Australia make a great start.

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Ashton Agar excited by the possibility of three spinners at the World Cup
Ashton Agar excited by the possibility of three spinners at the World Cup

Maxwell will be set for No. 4, or more specifically to do the bulk of the heavy lifting after the Powerplay, while Stoinis, if Australia don't opt for five bowlers, is likely to be the designated finisher behind Maxwell in the last 10 overs. However, if Australia play five specialist bowlers, Stoinis could well miss out with Cummins or Agar to bat at No. 7 leaving the line-up very thin in terms of depth. Australia do have uncapped wicketkeeper Josh Inglis in the squad who is a good player of spin in the middle overs but if he plays instead of Wade, Australia would have six right-handers in their top seven. Australia also has had issues chasing even at full-strength, having lost several games in the last two years from strong positions in run-chases.

Bowling

Australia's pace group is their strong suit however the structure of their attack will dictate the selection of the entire team. The debate surrounds whether they play five bowlers or four and rely on the three allrounders for the extra overs. Langer prefers the five-bowler strategy off the back of his success with Perth Scorchers and Australia reached No.1 playing that balance in 2019-20. Australia are intent on playing the spin combination of Agar and Zampa. Starc, Cummins and Richardson were the preferred trio of quicks during their successful run with Richardson providing the variety and death bowling option, but Hazlewood's IPL form gives Australia a lot of choices.

They are likely to mix and match depending on the surface and the opponent, with Starc and Hazlewood capable of blowing away top-orders while Cummins could be invaluable as a middle-overs bowler against West Indies given their preference for, and prowess against, spin. But if Australia choose to play only four bowlers, including the two spinners, they will need to pick the right pace duo. Starc is their first choice in almost every scenario, but if Hazlewood or Cummins are selected ahead of Richardson, Australia could be vulnerable in the death overs and be forced to rely on Marsh and Stoinis.

Player to watch

There is only one answer, and it is Glenn Maxwell. He could singlehandedly win Australia the World Cup. He played a vital role in getting Royal Challengers Bangalore into the IPL finals on the back of four sensational half-centuries in five innings. He has been a match-winner time and again for Australia in limited-overs cricket but much is expected of him and unlike with RCB he does not have the safety net of AB de Villiers batting behind him, which did afford him incredible freedom in a pressure-packed middle-order role. If he can deliver in just a couple of key pool games and the knockout phase, Australia could well win the tournament.

Key question

Can Australia's batters safely navigate the spin challenges that will be thrown at them? Their entire tournament depends on their ability to play spin well, particularly in the post Powerplay overs. Every opponent will load up with spin against them. Each individual player will need a method to both rotate the strike effectively when the situation demands it, and find and clear the rope when the opportunities arise. It is even more vital that each player trusts their methods throughout the tournament and avoids panicking and second-guessing as so many Australian players and teams have done in the past in the UAE and subcontinent.

Likely XI

Aaron Finch (capt), David Warner, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steven Smith/Marcus Stoinis, Matthew Wade (wk), Pat Cummins, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Starc, Adam Zampa, Kane Richardson/Josh Hazlewood

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo