Adaptability the key for favourites Australia at Women’s World Cup | Women’s Cricket World Cup

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After definitive series wins over India and England this summer – and a total of 29 wins from their last 30 ODIs – Australia head into the Women’s World Cup as overwhelming favourites. It’s a familiar position for this team, who have dominated world cricket for many years. But this particular tournament brings more pressure than usual, and Australia are desperate to regain the trophy after failing to make the final last time out in 2017.

It does not take a wild imagination to envisage Meg Lanning hoisting the trophy in Christchurch on 3 April, but a loss to India in the third ODI of the series in September and a comprehensive defeat at the hands of New Zealand in a warm up match this week have exposed some rare weaknesses.

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The inability to take wickets – which was heavily exposed in the 2017 semi-final loss to India – was again a concern against the Black Ferns. Australia failed to defend a strong total of 321, taking only one wicket as Sophie Devine (161 not out) and Amelia Kerr (92 not out) chased down the total with ease and more than six overs to spare. Rival teams will have been taking notes on the way the Ferns were able to evade the bowling of the No 1-ranked ODI team.

A World Cup is a different beast to a regular series; the tiniest slip up can spell the end of a team’s chances, as Australia know all too well after a shock defeat to India in the first round of the 2020 T20 World Cup brought them close to exiting the tournament at the semi-final stage. An almost miraculous break in the weather allowed that match to be played and Australia progressed to the final, which they won, but it was a close-run thing.

The format of this tournament allows a little more leeway for those slip ups. Rather than being divided into two pools, the eight teams will all each play each other once, with the top four progressing to the semis. It meams there will be plenty of opportunities to make up for any early loss, though the Australians will be keen to avoid meeting hosts New Zealand at the semi-final stage.

But the cloud that looms largest over the entire tournament is Covid-19. Already all-rounder Ash Gardner has tested positive and is required to isolate for 10 daysand she will miss the matches against England and Pakistan. All is being done to keep the players as safe as possible, but there remains the prospect that a swathe of positive tests could derail the Australians’ campaign.

The depth of the Matthew Mott’s squad is enviable, but the loss of any one of the likes of Beth Mooney, Tahlia McGrath or Meg Lanning for a must-win game could see the trophy quickly fall from their grasp for another four years, even if the ICC has prepared for the eventuality of a Covid-impacted tournament.

“If it becomes necessary, we would allow a team to field nine players as an exception for this environment and if they had female substitutes from within their management team, we would enable two substitutes to play, non-batting, non-bowling, but to enable a game to take place,” said ICC head of events Chris Tetley.

It is an exception that would have been unthinkable in pre-pandemic times – a circumstance reserved for suburban park cricket and captains who spend their Fridays furiously texting everyone they know who has ever picked up a cricket bat to try to secure numbers for the next day’s game. For a national team to take the field with only nine players – in a World Cup no less – would have seemed as unlikely as international cricket being played in empty stadiums. However, the world has changed and the sight of media managers and physiotherapists fielding at long on and extra cover may not even be a novelty by the end of this tournament.

As the first major tournament for women’s cricket since the pandemic took hold, there are more uncertainties than the teams are accustomed to. Australia have the form and results to suggest this World Cup is theirs for the taking, but the winner may well be the team that is best able to adjust to the changing circumstances of the world we now live in. Preparation and planning can be thrown out of the window in the blink of an eye and it is the Australians’ adaptability that will be put under the microscope over the course of the next month.

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