Australia World Cup profile: Returning Steve Smith and David Warner strengthen defence bid

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Steve Smith and David Warner (c) are back in the Aussie team.

Australia are the defending champions at the 2019 World Cup. But you wouldn’t have remembered that during a tumultuous 2018.

The infamous ball-tampering scandal in South Africa in early 2018 resulted in year-long suspensions of star batsmen and leaders Steve Smith and David Warner. Those suspensions fell right in the middle of a horror run for the Aussies. Since the start of 2017 to the end of last year, Australia won just seven and lost 19 ODIs. The record fell to two wins and 11 defeats in 2018 even with Smith and Warner in a bunch of those games.

Aaron Finch was tasked with keeping the broken team together in the absence of two batsmen and with pace spearheads Mitchel Starc and Pat Cummins available intermittently.

But through this mess, the Aussies have risen again. In 2019, captain Finch regained his touch as he led the underdog Aussies to a famous 3-2 series win in India in the company of a resurgent Usman Khawaja and a varied bowling attack. Pakistan were then disposed of 5-0 in the UAE, underlining the threat Australia pose at the showpiece event.

Here we take a closer look at the Australian World Cup team with Smith and Warner back in the team.

Aaron Finch.

Aaron Finch.

Record: Champions 1987, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2015

Squad: Aaron Finch (c), Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Steven Smith, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Alex Carey (wk), Marcus Stoinis, Pat Cummins, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Nathan Lyon, Kane Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Jason Behrendorff, Adam Zampa

Strength: The returning Smith and Warner strengthen the Australian line-up exponentially. The form of Finch and Khawaja at the top of the order means Australia have one of the most threatening and experienced batting line-ups.

Weakness: The absence of a back-up keeper means Carey will have to be carried. Also, it will be a toss-up between Khawaja and Warner as the second opener, leading to a disruption in a working plan. Losing Jhye Richardson means Aussies will be without their true No1 death bowler.

One to watch: Glenn Maxwell is at that point of his career where he is at the peak of his powers, is in form and knows his game inside out. He is a match-winner with the bat, ball and in the field. This tournament could very well be his.

Surprise package: Adam Zampa has proven to be a steely leg-spinner, putting in match-winning spells against India and Pakistan this year. In a tournament expected to be dominated by big hitters, wily wrist spinners will be key.

Prediction: Semi-final

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India World Cup profile: Virat Kohli's world-class top three carry hopes for men in blue

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Virat Kohli.

India are the No2 ranked ODI team in the world and enter the 2019 World Cup just behind hosts England in the favourites list to lift the title.

On paper, India have a fine first-choice team – world class top three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, hard-hitting all-rounder Hardik Pandya and the greatest white-ball mind in keeper MS Dhoni. Plus a bowling attack that has Jasprit Bumrah and two brilliant wrist spinners in Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav and which is capable of taking 10 wickets every game.

But there are issues as well. A fragile middle order, injury to key all-rounder Kedar Jadhav plus the sudden loss of form of Kuldeep in the IPL means India are not on as strong a footing as they were some time last year.

Their record in 2018 was outstanding – 14 wins and four defeats. India capped the season by remaining unbeaten during their tour of Australia but just when they hoped to have plugged all holes, Kohli’s boys lost a tough ODI series at home to Australia earlier this year.

If their first-choice players remain fit, India have a formidable Playing XI and a great Plan ‘A’. Kohli and Co will be hoping that not even one piece comes loose.

Record: Champions in 1983, 2011

Squad: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Vijay Shankar, Hardik Pandya, MS Dhoni (wk), Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav

Pandya is arguably India's most valuable player.

Pandya is arguably India’s most valuable player.

Strength: India’s top three batsmen and pace ace Bumrah are about as good as you can possibly get at the highest level. If three of those four fire, India are guaranteed to win. In many ways, India will rely almost exclusively on the top three batsmen to score runs and Bumrah to remain fit and firing until July.

Weakness: The middle order has long been India’s concern. It’s not even clear what it will look like throughout the tournament. The decision to not pick Rishabh Pant has robbed them of a power player. Also, they have a fairly long tail no matter what combination they pick.

Player to watch: Hardik Pandya can win the game on his own – with bat or ball. If he remains fit, he will be the pivot around which the Indian team will turn. In many ways, the most valuable member of the team.

Surprise package: Mohammed Shami has raised his game dramatically in the last season. So brilliant was his pace and intensity during the Test series in England and Australia that he burst his way into the ODI playing XI. Can be the X-Factor.

Prediction: Final

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Afghanistan World Cup profile: Fighting spirit intact despite late change in leadership

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Afghanistan made a leadership change two months before the World Cup.

While most teams aim for stability and unity before a major event like the World Cup, Afghanistan stunned one and all by changing the leadership structure, much to the chagrin of its supporters and even senior team members.

Just two months before the showpiece event, the Afghanistan Cricket Board removed Asghar Afghan as captain from all three formats and named Gulbadin Naib as the ODI leader.

Afghan stars Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan castigated the board for the untimely decision, terming it “biased and  irresponsible”.

On the field, they showed great fight during the Asia Cup in the UAE late last year, thrashing Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and tying a game with India.

They had to qualify for the showpiece event alongside West Indies and are consistently seen as one of the more dangerous outfits in white-ball cricket because of the fearless brand of cricket they play.

If the pitches are even remotely flat or dry, the Afghans will be right in it. Defeating Pakistan in their opening World Cup warm-up match underlined the serious threat they pose in the tournament.

Record: 1 win out of 6 games at 2015 World Cup.

Squad: Gulbadin Naib (c), Mohammad Shahzad, Noor Ali Zadran, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Afghan, Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Hamid Hassan, Rashid Khan, Aftab Alam, Dawlat Zadran

Strength: The core of the team – Shahzad, Nabi, Afghan, Zadrans – have been together through thick and thin and have personally taken the team from the depths of associate level cricket to Test level. It’s a team that is arguably the most well-knit outfit in the tournament, even with the forced leadership changes.

Weakness: The leadership bombshell might not affect the bonhomie in the side but can definitely affect the team plans as someone like Naib, who was not even in the picture, will be facing the heat in England. A self-inflicted wound which Afghanistan could have avoided by making any changes after the World Cup.

Afghanistan's Rashid Khan (l) and Mohammad Nabi (r).

Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan (l) and Mohammad Nabi (r).

Player to watch: Rashid Khan is the player who can do it all – bowl tight overs, pick up wickets and hit some lusty blows in the death overs. if Rashid is on top of his game, Afghanistan will always be in the game as he can get a clutch of wickets on any surface.

Surprise package: Veteran fast bowler Hamid Hasan is back in the ODI side after a gap of three years. Once the leading pacer of the team, the 31-year-old had faded away but is now back in the scheme of things. With a decade of international experience under his belt, he brings a lot to the table.

Prediction: League phase

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