Birmingham: Two-time defending champions they might be, but Australia are looking more vulnerable than ever as they brace up for their Champions Trophy Group A opener against confident Ashes rivals England here on Saturday.
Their patchy form aside, Aussies have a major worry to deal with as skipper Michael Clarke's long-standing back problem has flared up once again. Michael Clarke has been ruled out of Australia's opening Champions Trophy match against England on Saturday and vice-captain George Bailey will lead the side in his absence. The inspirational skipper is a crucial cog in the Australian scheme of things given that his batting form has more often than not been the difference between a win and loss for the team in the past few months.
England, on the other hand, would be looking to flourish in familiar conditions even though they endured an ODI series loss to a rather weak New Zealand just before the Champions Trophy. But an overall assessment of their ODI stats would reveal that since 2010, England have won 23 and lost only 11 of the 37 matches they have played at home.
George Bailey will lead the side in the absence of Michael Clarke.
A look at the team sheets gives a fair idea of just why the hosts would be the favourites on Saturday. Australia, a team well past its glory days, is struggling to cope with what has been a tormenting transitional phase.
The side's batting has looked brittle and this frailty was most recently exposed in the warm-up match against India last week when they were bowled out for just 65 runs while a chasing a steep 309.
Given the situation, it would be absolutely vital for Australia that Clarke returns to full fitness as soon as possible. The team would also be looking at imposing all-rounder Shane Watson to do quite a lot of scoring after a fine IPL stint with the Rajasthan Royals.
Runs would also be expected from the likes of explosive opener David Warner and Phil Hughes but batting would still be counted as a major weakness of the Australians which every opposition side would look to exploit.
By comparison, their bowling line-up looks decent with some variety. Exciting young pacer James Faulkner would look to make an impression after a successful stint during which he picked up 28 wickets at an average of 15.25 for the Rajasthan Royals.
Watson would be crucial here as well along with Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc but the lack of a quality slower bowler could pinch the team as it guns for its third consecutive Champions Trophy title. England, in contrast, look a settled squad even though the absence of an injured Kevin Pietersen could hurt them quite a bit.
Bulk of the scoring is likely to be done by the top-order trio of Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott with the likes of Joe Root and Jos Buttler expected to build on the solid starts. The bowling line-up is impressive with the formidable pace trio of James Anderson, Steven Finn and Stuart Broad ably supported by skillful spinner Graeme Swann.
Australia: George Bailey (captain), David Warner, Matthew Wade, Phillip Hughes, Shane Watson, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner, Mitchell Johnson, , Mitchell Starc, Xavier Doherty.
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Jonathan Trott, Eoin Morgan, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, James Anderson, Graeme Swann.