England have played Australia on six occasions in the World Cup. But tomorrow in Melbourne will feel like the first time. It always does. It always will.
The 11th version of this tournament could have wished for no more resonant fixture on its first day. On its second it has the smallish matter of India against Pakistan, which it is said may be watched by more people around the world than any match before.
That is probably 21st-century hyperbole but it still makes for a cracking opening to this misguidedly maligned event. The protagonists can only devour the attention.
“Everybody can’t wait to get started,” said the England captain, Eoin Morgan, yesterday. “It’s been a long time coming around and everybody’s been looking forward to this game in particular.”
Of the previous encounters between the countries in this competition, Australia have won four. In two of those they were clearer favourites to win than they are tomorrow, which might or might not give their opponents some succour.
“I think it’s important that we focus on what we do best,” said Morgan. “I think a lot of the time in the past we’ve strived for a formula that hasn’t been ours. The thing that we’ve started to turn around since we’ve arrived here is learning to adapt with what we do well in Australia, as opposed to what anybody else does well. I think if we can produce what I believe is our best cricket tomorrow, we’ll be able to beat Australia.”
It will take every fibre of every sinew for England to prevail. Australia are playing with an uncommon confidence even by their natural standards of conviction. They think they can hit the ball harder and longer, and bowl it faster, than anybody else and on this occasion are supported by all the evidence.
In recent times, especially in matches in this country, England have conjured winning positions only to make them disappear. They have been defeated by their own lack of conviction in their talents as much as by Australia.
This is what Morgan has to change: it is certainly no use thinking Australia are due to lose. The bare statistic is that England have won only two of the last 15 matches between them in this country.
“I think it’s quite easy,” Morgan said of being able to avoid being intimidated both by the figures and the sheer power of the opposition. “I guess the majority of the sides have all been in positions before.
“This is only in the last year it’s happened. But the majority of us have been in the series before, where we’ve played series where we’ve beaten Australia 4-0, 5-0, and again, guys with huge amounts of experience that have won consecutive Ashes series. Again, reinforcing what works is key, and emphasising or producing your skill on the day is ultimately what is important.”
Every facet of form, preparation and talent points to an Australian victory, which is the start the tournament and the host country would both probably prefer. England have spent the last two years talking the talk without walking the walk.
Belatedly, perhaps unwisely considering its timing, they sacked their long-standing captain, Alastair Cook, in late December and replaced him with Morgan. Almost immediately, Morgan scored a hundred but has been almost as short of runs as it is possible to be in the three weeks since – two in four innings (0, 0, 2, 0). His characteristic sangfroid meant that he betrayed no sign of concern or panic.
“I find it easy to reconnect with the past and what I do,” he said, referring to the fact that he would gain more on reflecting on the hundred than the ducks. “I can be individually focused, I suppose, when the chips are down. And I’ve done that in the past on a number of occasions when I’ve gone through low scores. I know I’ve done it and I’ve come out the other side.”
However, Morgan came in from some pre-tournament criticism from Geoffrey Boycott. “I don’t think he’s as good as he thinks he is, and I don’t think he’s as good as some people say he is,” Boycott said. “When top-class bowlers bowl against him he’s not so clever and that’s a big problem.”
Australia’s problems are comparatively minor with the potential for growth. Their official captain, Michael Clarke, was eventually ruled out of the match yesterday so the team will be led by George Bailey, who has been dreadfully out of sorts. Most of the country appears to want Steve Smith as captain and, if that is reflected in the dressing room, trouble could loom.
Someone will probably have to play an individual role of momentous proportions for England to win. It may as well be Morgan. He might like to remind his men that the two countries have met once before in a World Cup in Australia, in 1992. England won by eight wickets.