Old rivals Australia and England circle Twenty20 World Cup seeking knockout punch

On arrival at Perth airport last week, wicketkeeper Matthew Wade said that his team’s heavy loss to England in last year’s Twenty20 World Cup group stage was “the lightbulb moment” that made the Australians change the way they approached the format and go on to win that tournament.

A week after Wade spoke in Perth, having endured three more beltings by England in the interim, it is reasonable to wonder whether the lightbulb is flickering.

Only rain in the final match could turn whitewash to washout. The first two matches took different routes to identical margins of eight runs, once when England’s batting blitzed a score of over 200, then when the cleverness of England’s bowling defended a more modest score.

In the third match it was adaptability that had England on top, the batters walking back after two rain delays to loot 39 runs from the final 14 balls of a shortened innings.

Josh Hazlewood is Australia’s standard-bearer for Test bowling, the tall quick with the accuracy to hitting a coin on the pitch, and who has more recently adapted his game to suit 20-over cricket. Jos Buttler is England’s captain, and currently the shortest format’s most consistently destructive batter in the world.

It felt symbolic to see Buttler calmly eviscerating a Hazlewood over, picking slower ball from full pace with a yawn in his throat, placing the fuller balls through the off side and the marginally shorter ones over leg to collect 22 runs from six shots.

Then there was England’s swing bowler Chris Woakes, a man whose glum Ashes visits have seen him take a wicket in Australia every 95 balls, starting up on this damp Canberra evening to find movement and create catches from the first two deliveries of the match.

The DLS score adjustment had set Australia 130 to win, meaning that the required run rate soon exceeded 12 per over. The home team was gone, even before more rain. None of which is to say that Australia got much wrong. They go into the upcoming World Cup with an excellent best XI and an adaptable squad. It’s just that right now, England look a better side on paper and on grass.

The same was true at last year’s tournament, when they were stacked with batting power top to tail while Australia had frailties exposed. The path to that trophy didn’t rely on finding a way to beat England, it relied on avoiding them. New Zealand offered a trans-Tasman favour by maintaining the historical role of New Zealand cricket: being a giant-killer against everybody else before falling apart against Australia.

So the old rivalry is set at an interesting point with this year’s tournament about to start. All three of the aforementioned teams are in the same group, with Afghanistan and two qualifiers that will most likely be Sri Lanka along with Ireland or Zimbabwe.

Don’t discount the Sri Lankans, who recorded some stirring wins across all three formats against Australia in June and July before storming on to win the Asia Cup. But as usual most eyes will be on Australia versus England, first in the group stage and then possibly again in the knockouts.

By then, memories of warm-up matches will be distant. Everything starts fresh in a big tournament as you wait for the umpire to call play. But there are still aspects of significance that could carry over. England’s batters have shown no fear of the blue-chip pace trio of Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood. Buttler regards all bowling as there to be scored from, and his players follow his lead.

England’s bowlers fancy themselves against Australia’s top order, and can find ways to suppress explosions from the middle. And on a longer timeline, Australian teams find ways to win the big moments even when by rights they should not.

The dynamics between certain teams within a tournament context can be fascinating. Take Pakistan losing to India at World Cups for decades, and the eruption of delight when they finally broke that streak last October. The objective quality of sides outside tournaments is not always reflected in certain match-ups within them.

England’s era of white-ball excellence from 2015 to now has not landed the biggest T20 prize, and last year’s World Cup did nothing to settle whether it made them a better side than Australia: if a World Cup match makes the warm-up fade to nothing, a final makes the group stage do the same.

In 2022, after a long wait, a knockout meeting would be a satisfying path to closure.