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03 March 201513:33 By R Kaushik, Perth

Australia v Afghanistan Preview, Match 26, Perth

Clarke’s men must flex their muscles at a venue that will test Afghanistan’s resolve and character

Australia v Afghanistan Preview, Match 26, Perth - Cricket News

Australia needs a commanding performance to get its campaign back on the rails.

The India v UAE game on Saturday passed off without any incident at the WACA ground as the defending champion trumped its opposition by nine wickets. There is little to suggest that Wednesday’s (March 4) act two will be too different when Afghanistan, grim determination and free spirit, run into Australia, the No. 1 One-Day International side in the world.

These are slightly troubled times for Australian cricket. Much has been made of the manner in which Australia stretched the limits to accommodate Michael Clarke in the World Cup squad and send George Bailey from captain to superfluous in the space of one game. The co-host, an overwhelming favourite to add to its impressive tally of World Cup crowns, has had numerous injury and fitness issues to grapple with, the latest ruling Pat Cummins out of Wednesday’s game with a niggle in the side. Additionally, it has picked up just one point from its last two games, courtesy the washout in Brisbane against Bangladesh and the loss to New Zealand.

Three points from three games isn’t in keeping with Australia’s standing as the top dog in ODI cricket. But with matches against Afghanistan and Scotland sandwiching its Sydney showdown with Sri Lanka, Australia is well placed to take its appointed place in the last eight in Adelaide, but for its own confidence, as much as for perception, Clarke’s men need to flex their muscles at a venue that will test Afghanistan’s batting skills as much as its resolve and character.

Defeat last Saturday against New Zealand was a chastening experience for the four-time champion. Australia did fight back spectacularly with the ball through Mitchell Starc after being shot out for 151, and it needed the ice cool of Kane Williamson to haul stuttering New Zealand over the line. But Trent Boult in particular exposed the vulnerability of the Australian batting against top-class swing. The gains from the crushing win over England in its tournament opener might have been frittered away somewhat, so Australia needs a commanding performance to get its campaign back on the rails.

Australia will be heartened by the availability, for the first time in the competition, of James Faulkner, the end overs specialist with both bat and ball who has fully recovered from a lower abdominal muscle strain, but it is the top half of its batting that it will be a little concerned about. Shane Watson’s poor run has extended beyond the tri-series of January-February, where he made just 57 from two hits; at No. 3 in the World Cup, he has scores of 0 and 23 and has bowled just three overs. His place isn’t under immediate threat but Australia needs Watson firing on all cylinders going forward because he provides that balance batting at one-down that every other team would be desperate to possess.

It’s more than possible that Afghanistan will face a fearsome backlash, not just from Watson but from Australia as a whole, smarting from its poor batting display in Auckland. David Warner is due, as is Steven Smith; that is a frightening prospect, given how much bruising damage Warner is capable of and how Smith loves to string one big score after another. Afghanistan has the pace bowling resources to keep Australia honest, but Hamid Hassan, Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran would have to guard against getting carried away by the pace and the bounce they would generate like they haven’t till now.

More than anyone else, however, it is Clarke himself who needs a good personal outing. He isn’t unaware of the shake-up of dynamics, both in his injury-driven absence and in his return to the XI; Australia has always taken its cue from its leader, and if it is to gather steam heading into the knockouts, it would need its captain to show that he is up for the battle, that it was worth waiting from him to recover from injury.

Afghanistan is coming into this game on the back of a memorable one-wicket win over Scotland, a match where it snatched victory from the gaping jaws of defeat. Chasing 211 for its maiden World Cup victory, Afghanistan slumped from 85 for 2 to 97 for 7 before Samiullah Shenwari took them to within sight of the finish line, and Hamid and Shapoor applied the finishing touches. It was only Afghanistan’s third World Cup game and to bank a win at such an early stage must be a wonderful feeling, but if Mohammad Nabi isn’t on cloud nine, you can see why.

Shenwari has been consistent all the way through, but the rest of the batting hasn’t quite supported him. The only other half-century in three innings was scored by Javed Ahmadi, also against Scotland. If the top order doesn’t stand up to Mitchell Johnson, Starc, Faulkner and, possibly, Josh Hazlewood, this could be one chastening experience for the Afghans.

Australia and Afghanistan have met once previously, in Sharjah some two-and-a-half years back. There are a fair few survivors from that game in both sides, but Perth is as different from Sharjah as cricket is from tennis. Despite playing the home side, Afghanistan will not be short of support because everyone, even the Aussies, loves an underdog; what it makes of that backing, however, is another matter altogether.

Teams (from):

Afghanistan: Javed Ahmadi, Nawroz Mangal, Asghar Stanikzai, Samiullah Shenwari, Mohammad Nabi (capt), Afsar Zazai (wk), Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Shapoor Zadran, Aftab Alam, Nasir Jamal, Shafiqullah, Usman Ghani.

Australia: Aaron Finch, David Warner, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (capt), Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Brad Haddin, Mitchell Marsh, James Faulkner, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood, George Bailey, Xavier Doherty.

You can follow the build up to the game and the live scoring and match highlights for Australia v Afghanistan here in the ICC Match Centre.