Hometown heroes vs far-travelling champions

It's anyone's game at the ICC T20 Women's World Cup

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ICC T20 World Cup 2020
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 17: Sornnarin Tippoch of Thailand, Harmanpreet Kaur of India, Sophie Devine of New Zealand, Stafanie Taylor of the West Indies, Meg Lanning of Australia, Chamari Atapattu of Sri Lanka, Dane van Niekerk of South Africa, Heather Knight of England, Salma Khatun of Bangladesh and Bismah Maroof of Pakistan pose with the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Trophy.

This Australian summer of cricket may have so far underwhelmed, but its marquee event is yet to begin. After the one-sided drubbings of Pakistan and New Zealand meted out by
the Australian men’s team, and the peculiarly-timed week-long tour to India in January, fans have started looking ahead to the seventh edition of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup. Making its Australian debut on 21 February, the tournament will culminate in a blockbuster final at the MCG on 8 March – International Women’s Day – which organisers hope will set a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event.

Though Australia took out the pre-tournament tri-series against England and India as expected, each of the teams beat the other in the group stages, which was not in the script. Each team can claim to be in good form, but as has been proven time and again, form is only part of the puzzle; the allure of international trophies carries with it an altogether different kind of pressure, and there are a host of challengers seeking to dethrone Australia, the rightful hometown favourites.

Australia
The defending champions, winners of four of the six Women’s World T20s to date, and number one side across all formats, Australia seem veritably unconquerable. It is almost scary that all of Australia’s wins have come in foreign conditions; the T20 World Cup (whether Men’s or Women’s) has never been played in the southern hemisphere.

Since January 2018, Australia’s record in T20 matches reads a formidable 26 wins from 31 matches, with two losses coming in the tri-series itself. It is a stark contrast from the team’s performances before this time, when it had a winning percentage in T20s of only 55%, and stems from the team’s new “fearless” philosophy – not being afraid to lose wickets, and relying on the exceptional depth in its batting order.

With 13 of its 15 squad members having played in the victorious side that won the 2018 title, Australia have the crucial advantage of knowing the sustained excellence required to beat the field, particularly in stalwarts Alyssa Healy, Ellyse Perry and captain Meg Lanning, each of whom is destined to go down as a great of the game.

Although Australia will be playing with the weight of expectation that comes with home tournaments, importantly, it will be playing with perspective too, as the country reels in the
aftermath of the devastating bushfire crisis. “That’s pressure, defending your house and your home and family, that’s pressure,” said Australian coach Matthew Mott. “[The Australian team] are going to go out, have the time of their lives, have fun with their mates, so we’re really going to embrace the tournament, have as much fun as we can”.

ICC T20 World Cup 2020
Meg Lanning with Harmanpreet Kaur

India
The Indian side was welcomed to Australia by Governor General David Hurley last month with a morning tea at Admiralty House, and their relaxed and candid demeanours were a nod to the side’s consummate professionalism, with no sense of overawe at the magnitude of the occasion.

Professionalism and self-belief will be key for India as they seek to lift their first-ever ICC trophy. Despite the pedigree of its players, India’s record against the stronger countries leaves much to be desired; India has won only 5 of its 18 T20Is against Australia, 4 of 19 against England, and 3 of 11 against New Zealand. To win the title, India will need to believe it can beat each of these teams.

And India will not have to look far to find that self-belief; having beaten England to reach the tri-series final, they are also the only side other than England to have beaten Australia in any format over the last two years. This includes the team’s record run chase in the group stage of the tri-series and a win in the group stage of the 2018 T20 World Cup. Earmarked by Mott as the “most feared” batting line-up in the tournament, there’s plenty of evidence why.

India’s is a side littered with experience and youth, including the peerless captain Harmanpreet Kaur (who smashed 171* against Australia in their 2017 World Cup semi-final in one of the greatest all-time innings), the 2018 ICC cricketer of the year Smriti Mandhana and the barely 16-year-old prodigy Shafali Verma, who herself blasted 124 against Australia A in December 2019.

The tri-series presents an enormous opportunity for India, allowing them to test themselves against the two premier sides on Australian pitches. If India’s spinners, led by Cricketer of the Year Poonam Yadav, find their lengths ahead of the tournament, the Women in Blue stand a chance of going the distance.

England
It was an astonishing 2019 for their male counterparts, but the England women’s team will be hoping to make 2020 their own. With new coach Lisa Keightley at the helm – the first woman to coach England in nearly 20 years – England have no uncapped players in their squad, with 12 of their 15 having previously played in global tournaments.

The absence of inexperience can often be a double-edged sword, particularly when it comes to England’s record against its arch-nemesis on the global stage. Many players will still carry scars from previous editions of the tournament, in which the side has lost three finals to Australia, a solitary win coming in the inaugural 2009 edition. More recently, the team suffered a 12-4 loss to Australia in the Women’s Ashes last summer, which followed its loss to the same opponent in the 2018 T20 World Cup final in Antigua and Barbuda.

It’s no wonder England has appointed an Australian in Keightley as its head coach, and it seems to have already paid dividends with the team notching up a rare win over Australia in the tri-series group stage.

But like the men, the England women are the reigning 50-over World Cup champions, and will be able to draw on plenty of big-tournament experience. Led by Heather Knight, who lit up the 2018-19 WBBL for the Hobart Hurricanes, anything less than a semi-final for a strong English outfit will be viewed as a failure.

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