England, according to their slogan, are striving to ‘go boldly’ in this World Cup campaign. It isn’t hard to see that disposition reflected in their words as well as their play: expansive and forthright. Liberated of major host-nation expectations, a process that was actually helped along their opening-round loss to India, Heather Knight’s side are as healthy as they are happy.
In turn, there couldn’t be a better time for them to cop Australia in the group stage of this tournament, and they know it. The world champions, of course, have done little wrong to date, reflected in a faultless win-loss ledger after four starts. But, as a result of captain Meg Lanning’s shoulder injury – it was still unclear on match eve whether she will take her place at No.3 in Bristol – they strike the more discombobulated figure of the two. Unavoidably so: all the depth in the world cannot replace the best player on the planet.
“It’s still attached last time I looked,” Joe Dawes, Australia’s bowling coach, said. “That’s for the medical people to work out, I’m not sure. We’re preparing for her to play tomorrow, as far as I know, and see how she wakes up in the morning, I guess.”
England are too, Knight confident that, no matter what, the utterly dominant batsman will be ready to roll when the team sheets are being inked. “We’re fully preparing for Meg,” she said.
England have long been gearing up for this blockbuster. No moment was more significant to coach Mark Robinson’s wholesale reform of the side than their loss on the previous occasion the two teams met, in last year’s World T20 semi-final. It’s a constant point of reference any time he’s drawn on the post-Charlotte Edwards era.
“We were different on the day when we played that semi-final,” he recalled. “We couldn’t do some of the basics – the non-skill things – in that semi-final. So, that’s just non-negotiable – an England coach should never have to talk about fitness.”
In Robinson’s New England, his side also cannot allow themselves to be intimidated by the Australian machine. “We respect Australia but we have to respect ourselves and what have done as a coaching staff, and Heather as captain, is try and give the girls belief in themselves,” he said. “So for me, it is not about winning or losing, it’s about making sure we all turn up.”
For Knight’s part, she sees the squad as being “in a really good place” – radically different to when they capitulated in that 2016 clash. “We function as a team a lot better,” she said. “We don’t rely on a few players; we have got a lot more leaders.”
Helping with the psychology of preparing for an Australian clash is familiarity, with so many of the frontliners facing off regularly on the semi-professional T20 circuit. So now is as good a time as any, she thinks, to break England’s 24-year World Cup hoodoo against them.
“It is the big games that we have been preparing for, and a lot of the work we have done is towards these big games and standing up,” she said. “There is always going to be that added pressure with the old enemy but hopefully we can, as a group, rise to that.”
The precondition for an upset is England’s record-breaking batting continuing apace. They now boast four World Cup century-makers: Knight and Nat Sciver clocking their maiden ODI tons against Pakistan, then Tammy Beaumont and Sarah Taylor combining for an outrageous 275-run tryst against a full-strength South Africa on Wednesday.
“It is as good as it gets,” Robinson said of the stand – the highest for England in ODIs. “Both of them got into that lovely place where they were just playing with absolute freedom, on auto-pilot, in the zone, that magical place. And the joy they had with each other. They hopefully express that as a team; they play best when they are playing with a smile.”
It capped Taylor’s return to the game in emphatic style, her 147 from 104 balls a galaxy away from when she walked away from it all following the aforementioned World T20 nadir due to crippling anxiety. “She never really expected to be in this position,” Robinson said. “The thing we talk about with Sarah is the bonus of her being here. Everything she achieves is extra.”
Her year-long omission, according to the coach, did have unexpected benefits as the side quickly found its way under Knight’s leadership. “We played a lot without her which was probably quite good for us as a team (with) other players coming to the fore,” he said. “The team now know that they don’t have to rely on anybody.”
Australia are less interested in words. They just want to do what they’re good at. “Win,” Dawes said of their plan against England. “We don’t worry too much about the opposition.” Simple as that. “We’re pretty happy coming into the business end and peaking nicely.”
The surface, a fresh pitch, is expected to be hard and fast – just the way Robinson likes it. “Gloucestershire have been outstanding with the wickets they have produced so far,” he said. “With the way (women) play nowadays, hitting and manipulating the ball the way they can, they need the surfaces to do their skills justice.”
For how that effects selection, Knight said it is “unlikely” a trio of tweakers will be used. But that has been the status quo for Australia’s side so far in this tournament, three of Australia’s four spinners rotated through the XI in each fixture. Dawes hinted that it will be the same again, regardless of the pitch, due to the tap seamers have been taking across the board.
Robinson’s relaxed final thoughts are that they have earned this chance to knock off the champions. “Australia are an outstanding team,” he said. “We have got a great opportunity to see how far we have come, win or lose. We’ll have a yard stick to see exactly where we are at the moment.” Not at all a bad place to be.
Adam Collins is a journalist and broadcaster
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.