Both Australia and England meet their T20 World Cup moment-of-truths ahead of schedule on Friday when they square-off at the MCG.
Defeat for either nation will almost certainly crush their campaign only three matches into the tournament.
Needless to say, plenty will go on the line for both Australia and England in Melbourne in what looms as a classic edition in this historic rivalry.
These are the Burning Questions heading into the World Cup blockbuster.
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IS AARON FINCH’S INTERNATIONAL CAREER ON THE LINE?
Hard to ignore now, isn’t it?
Finch is a genuine white ball great for Australia and, in retirement, will no doubt be referred to as a legend of the game.
Others have certainly earnt that title for less than winning an ODI World Cup, captaining their side to a T20 World Cup, and amassing nearly 8,500 international white ball runs at more than 35.
Recognising that first and foremost is only affording the same level of respect to Finch as was offered to other outgoing greats, like Ricky Ponting or Mark Taylor.
Eventually, the tap comes and you can only hope the good times are remembered more than the bad — as they should be.
But back to right here, right now: Finch is in strife.
He’s either not making runs or, even when he is, it somehow feels like he isn’t.
That was the case on Tuesday night when the opener clawed his way to 31 off 42 balls. The fact he stayed unbeaten is nothing short of a minor miracle given the ball rarely came off the middle of his bat.
Out of those 42 balls, only one found the boundary. The innings was so torturous that the Perth crowd was audibly starting to groan when Finch gained strike.
It led to Mark Waugh saying on RSN Breakfast: “Aaron Finch’s innings was torturous. It really was.
“I don’t think he can open the innings in the next game. If he’s going to play, he should bat somewhere down the order.”
Finch was bothered too.
His cries of ‘oh my god!’ came through loud and clear on stump mic after a miscued drive off a half volley, while he said after the match: “Obviously my innings was unusual, it was poor, I just couldn’t hit the ball.”
And that, playing the game’s shortest format in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it group stage, is a massive problem.
Finch might need time, but there’s no more to give.
Australia’s match against England is as close to being an eliminator as you can get without actually being an eliminator.
A route to the semi finals still exists with a loss, but it becomes heavily shrouded in complicated net run rate calculations, and excursions into the dark arts to try and manifest disastrous results for rivals.
Australia puts Sri Lanka to the sword | 04:02
At this point, Finch’s spot in the team is owed to his leadership, and the loyalty of selectors who feel he has earnt the right to defend the title won last year.
That might be fair enough, but there’s no way Finch is still within the best 11 T20 cricketers Australia has to offer.
As such, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Friday night’s showdown against England becomes the last international match Finch ever plays.
Granted that’s an unlikely scenario, but should Finch fail and Australia lose, there’s the possibility that selectors blow up the current plan for the final two matches.
Finch could even opt to step aside himself if he feels it’s within the best interests of the team, as he did in ODI cricket.
Alternatively, Finch bounces back, Australia wins, and maybe we can forget this whole thing ever happened.
Either way, it could all come down to this one innings in the middle of the MCG.
IS PAT CUMMINS VULNERABLE IN T20 CRICKET?
A strong showing against England and this probably all goes away but, for now, the heat is slowly starting to mount on Cummins.
For a bowler considered by many as one of the best mutli-format bowlers in the world, if not the best, Cummins has been off-colour in T20 cricket.
He hasn’t been poor, but he hasn’t been good either, while Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc have been more effectual this year.
This was thrust into the spotlight on Tuesday when Cummins conceded 20 runs in the final over against Sri Lanka, taking his economy rate in the death overs in 2022 to 13.01.
He leaked six boundaries on the night, compared to three hit against Hazlewood and just one hit against Starc.
Across the first two matches, Cummins has taken one wicket at 82.00 with an economy rate of 10.25. Hazlewood has three wickets at 22.33 with an economy rate of 8.37, while Starc also has just one wicket, but has been hit for 7.37 runs an over.
A small sample size it may be, but this year’s World Cup represents the greater trend against Cummins in 2022.
Cummins’ average is 32.72 compared to 17.37 for Hazlewood and 24.45 for Starc, while he’s also leaking 8.78 runs an over. Starc’s economy rate this year is 7.91 and Hazlewood’s 7.37.
As for why the gap is emerging, his lack of change-ups could be a big factor.
Former Black Caps player and commentator Simon Doull said after the Sri Lanka match that Cummins isn’t suited to T20 cricket.
“I’d be concerned with some of the parts of the bowling. I said the other night in the warm-up match, I feel personally that Pat Cummins shouldn’t be playing in this T20 side,” Doull said.
“I think Kane Richardson should be playing. I feel that he offers them a few variations that they just don’t have. It’s same-same. It’s pace on, pace on, pace on. Starc, (Josh) Hazlewood, Cummins – they don’t have a really good change-up bowler.”
Starc might not be a change-up bowler, but he’s quicker than Cummins, finds more movement in the opening few overs, and has one of the best yorkers in world cricket.
Pat smashed for 20 after AWFUL review | 00:56
Hazlewood and Cummins might be similar bowlers, but the extra height of the former gives him more bounce that batters find troubling. He’s also developed a handful of subtle, off-pace change-ups that have been effective.
As for Cummins, he’s become slightly more predictable for batters, while Kerry O’Keeffe notes that batters have found a way to combat his lengths.
“They are the best red ball pace attack in the world – Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc – but Hazlewood has made himself a T20 bowler but Pat Cummins’ length allows batsmen to get under him,” O’Keeffe said on Back Page Live.
He added: “And that’s why people like the Nathan Ellis, who should have been in this squad and bowl yorkers, slower stuff, much more variety inside the four overs than Pat.
“(He’s) still an outstanding bowler by the way, but they read him perfectly.”
WILL THERE BE HEAT ON MCDONALD?
There’s no threat to Andrew McDonald’s position as Australia’s coach, although a loss on Friday will certainly be a hefty blow to his short reign.
McDonald’s takeover from Justin Langer has been widely celebrated with an away Test series win in Pakistan earlier this year the highlight.
Letting a lead in the two-Test series against Sri Lanka slip was a disappointment, but the nation has historically been an unhappy hunting ground for Australia, while a 1-1 draw was far from a disaster.
Seeing a World Cup title defence go up in smoke in the space of three games, however, is a disaster.
Being the defending nation is not easy, hence why no one has ever defended the T20 World Cup.
But only a 12-month gap between editions was meant to be a boost for Australia — and that’s to say nothing of the fact that it’s on home soil.
The nature of T20 cricket means that even the most well thought-out predictions can be made to look foolish, but Australia should not be effectively bowing out this soon, as simple as that.
Certain to add more pressure on McDonald, in the event of an early exit, is the looming shadow of Langer.
True that McDonald was an assistant last year and had a big role, but Australia won under Langer — who also boasts three BBL titles to his successor’s one.
The decision to push Langer aside was a controversial one among the Australian cricket fraternity, and it will look more controversial still should results continue to slip.
HAS AUSTRALIA TURNED THE CORNER?
But enough doom and gloom.
There’s every chance Friday night’s match goes the other way for Australia — and potentially leads to something glorious.
Group 1 has been blown wide open by England’s loss to Ireland, and an abandoned match between New Zealand and Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Australia looked in big trouble even if it was to finish the group stage with a 4-1 record due to its poor net run rate
Now, however, a 4-1 record for Australia guarantees it certain passage into the semi finals.
If Australia finishes 4-1, only one of New Zealand or Sri Lanka could match that record, but not both given they must play each other.
Given the top two teams progress, Australia would be safe.
What’s more is that if Australia gets over the line against England, it is left with the easiest remaining fixtures on paper: Ireland at the Gabba, and Afghanistan in Adelaide.
Neither are walkovers, but Australia would be heavily favoured to win both and progress, barring any more curveballs provided by the weather.
Which is why virtually everything hinges on beating England and condemning its great rival to a likely elimination.
It would take a brave person to write Australia off from doing exactly that.
In the UAE last year, Australia was far from the pre-tournament favourite but won the world title by doing just enough.
There was the wobbly, final-over win over South Africa in the opening match, a heavy defeat to England, followed by net run rate-boosting victories over Bangladesh and the West Indies to scrape through. Then, in the semi final, Matthew Wade produced an epic escape act at the death, having been dropped in the penultimate over.
The reality is that that’s all Australia has to do here, too: Just enough.
There are no extra style points. No gold star for a dominant display. The only genuine reward is through wins.
And what’s to say that Marcus Stoinis’ 17-ball half century against Sri Lanka wasn’t the start of something special?
In the UAE, Stoinis bailed Australia out against South Africa to get the ball rolling. He’s now done the same in Australia with a breathtaking performance.
Many of the Australians might’ve looked like forlorn figures in the chase against Sri Lanka, but others, including Stoinis, looked up for the fight.
Hulk Smash! Stoinis sets new record | 01:18
Stoinis said before the match that Australia thrives off being in cutthroat situations and, although that didn’t ring true with many players on the night, it did for him.
Just look at the way he was fist-pumping after hitting a six, but before the job was even done. How many batters do you see celebrating in cricket before actually winning a match?
But did it really matter? Stoinis knew Australia was going to win, because he knew he was going to win it for them.
It’s Stoinis’ attitude that could prove to be infectious now, reminding his teammates that they’re capable of such brilliance, too.
Besides, England is in strife as well — and Jos Buttler’s side comes into the match off a loss and one less day of rest.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR ENGLAND?
Australia isn’t the only one with plenty on the line at the MCG.
A World Cup campaign on toast after three matches would be equally disastrous for England, and no doubt lead to overwhelming criticism on the home front.
No one does a post-mortem like the English — and the vultures are already circling after a shock loss to Ireland on Wednesday.
England was again one of the pre-tournament favourites, as it was last year, hoping to lift the nation’s first men’s T20 World Cup crown since 2010.
England’s golden era for white ball cricket produced an ODI crown in 2019, but the T20 equivalent remains elusive for this particular generation.
In 2016, Ben Stokes had 19 runs to defend in the final over against the West Indies and Carlos Brathwaite hit four-consecutive sixes.
Now no one will forget the name.
That heartbreak won’t be truly put to bed until England can get its hands on the trophy that slipped straight through its fingers six years ago.
England has been dealt some big injury blows that shouldn’t be ignored. Jofra Archer has been on the long-term injury list, Jonny Bairstow broke his leg playing golf, while Reece Topley rolled his ankle on the eve of the tournament.
Those are big losses, but they won’t explain to a gutted nation how a team boasting Jos Buttler, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Mark Wood and Sam Curran was humiliated.
It’s also a bad foot for England’s Aussie-heavy coaching staff to get off on.
Former Australian women’s coach Matthew Mott is in his first year as England’s white ball coach, while his fellow Aussie assistants David Saker and Michael Hussey are also new to their roles.
Like McDonald, Mott won’t pay the ultimate price for failure at this World Cup so early into his reign, but it will leave him with a major blemish to recover from.
Meanwhile, the roles of certain players would certainly come under question.
That includes Stokes, whose return to international T20 cricket after more than 18 months away has been lacklustre with the bat.
Will England rest players for Aussies? | 00:59
He’s averaging just 10.25 from his past five matches with a strike rate under 100. Meanwhile, Dawid Malan also came under fire on Wednesday for taking 37 balls to make 35, despite the threat of rain.
No one has come under more intense scrutiny, however, than Chris Woakes who was smoked for 0-41 from just three overs against the Irish.
While Woakes’ wasn’t specifically named by Buttler, the England captain took aim at his own bowlers after the match, knowing that the 33-year-old was the worst performer.
“Especially in the first 10 overs with the ball, I think we were a long way short of the standards we set ourselves in the game before,” Buttler said.
“We let Ireland get away from us, I thought we dragged it back in the second half but that put a lot of pressure on us right from the start.”