It isn't everyday in ODI cricket that England start as favorites over Australia, but that is the truth leading up to the first of five matches against the No. 1 team starting on Friday at Lord's. A record-breaking seven-wicket win in the Twenty20 at Trent Bridge on Sunday has further boosted England's confidence following their series win in the Tests and ODIs against West Indies, while Australia – without one of their best players in Michael Hussey – are in something of a rebuilding phase.
The second of three bilateral one-day series to takes place in England this summer will feature two teams at different stages of development. England are aiming to become world-beaters in 2015; Australia, for the first time in years, are trying to put their ODI team back on track.
It sounds strange to say this but this an England side on the rise, under a captain who himself has revived his ODI fortunes in stunning manner over the past 12 months, and though they are currently ranked fourth the hosts will fancy their chances of beating Australia. That is not to say that England don’t have questions to be answered and flaws to be ironed out, despite their notable run of success. A stiffer challenge than West Indies won't be minded ahead of a busy season.
The 5-match series could throw up interesting indications of how both the teams have progressed in the past year.
England have been a dominant ODI force since Alastair Cook took over the captaincy – winning 13 of 21 completed matches. Cook's tenure began with a 3-2 win over Sri Lanka at home and was followed up with a 3-0 success over India, also at home. The return visit to India resulted in a 5-0 whitewash by the hosts, but England surprised many by sweeping Pakistan 4-0 in the UAE immediately after being totally outplayed in the Test series. Their most recent success came over West Indies.
But Kevin Pietersen's surprise retirement has denied England of a high-profile match-winner, and they have a crop of youngsters jostling for space with a couple struggling players. The absence of Pietersen resulted in an ODI recall for Ian Bell, who replied with a century and half-century in two games against West Indies, but Australia's battery of quicks will be a tougher task. Jonathan Trott hasn't scored an ODI fifty since October, Eoin Morgan's stocks have diminished rapidly and Ravi Bopara has been given another chance to try and fit into the England side. Behind these three batsmen, there is Jonny Bairstow competing for a slot. Craig Keiswetter too has not convinced all that he should be England's glovesman in ODI cricket.
Though Australia were recently presented with the ICC's ODI shield after finishing the season as the No.1-ranked one-day side, they are not a dominant force. In the past 12 months since they were evicted from the World Cup during the quarter-finals, they have won 13 of 25 matches with their latest ODI series resulting in a 2-2 draw with West Indies. Prior to that was their CB Series triumph over Sri Lanka in a toughly contested best-of-three finals, and before that they beat South Africa 2-1 away. That tells you that Michael Clarke's team has not lost a series, but Australia often struggled to win during this phase. The draw with West Indies was perhaps most indicative of Australia's situation, albeit of the fact that a weakened team was sent to the Caribbean.
Regarding Australia, most of the concerns rest on the batting. Without Hussey and Ricky Ponting, the likes of Peter Forrest, George Bailey and Steve Smith will compete for positions in the ODI line-up with the hopes that success could earn them a return to England for the 2013 Ashes. Matthew Wade, who has displaced Brad Haddin as the preferred ODI wicketkeeper, and David Warner have yet to play ODI cricket in England and will be tested by England's strong attack in bowler-friendly conditions. How these players shape up will be important for Australia's attemps to regain the Ashes and form a strong ODI team for 2015.
But perhaps the most interesting sub-plots of the series will be the opening partnership between Cook and Bell and the return of Pat Cummins. The Cook-Bell relationship at the top of the order will be crucial if England are to dominate Australia and then South Africa after that, and plenty is riding on their success as England build toward the 2015 World Cup.
Cummins, the 19-year-old pace sensation, only made a return to competitive cricket for Australia Under-19s in April, following a bone stress injury in his foot that sidelined him after a stunning Test debut against South Africa in November. Australia's coach Mickey Arthur has spoken of how this tour of England could give an indication how Cummins and James Pattinson could cope with conditions in next year's Ashes, and the focus will be on the two youngsters. Such is Australia's eagerness to get Cummins playing top-flight cricket that Arthur has even suggested that he would be preferred to Mitchell Johnson as a starter.
Beyond the combinations and permutations of both teams, this series carries further significance. With declining crowds a concern ahead of South Africa's visit, interested parties want nothing more than competitive, engaging cricket. Trott believes the historical Ashes rivalry between England and Australia could lose significance if the two teams continue to play each other often in an already crammed international calendar and, against the backdrop of 50-over cricket's future, the merits of this short series have already been questioned by critics. Whether their concerns are alleviated remains to be seen.