Defending champion aims to put Ashes failures behind it, while New Zealand hope its aggressive brand of cricket will serve it well
“Heat? What's that?” That was the wry response from a member of the Australian Women team when asked if acclimatising to the weather conditions would be one of its biggest challenges in Bangladesh. It's a question most teams are asked while touring the subcontinent, but when you realise Australia have just had one of the most scorching summers in recent times, the question loses significance and the Sylhet heat feels much less harsh.
At least that's what one could gather from Australia’s practice session that stretched for well over a couple of hours ahead of the opening clash of the ICC Women's World Twenty20 2014 against New Zealand at Sylhet Divisional Stadium on Sunday (March 23).
One of the keys to Australia's success in recent times has been its ability to find like for like replacements for each player. Not just in terms of skills, but Jodie Fields's withdrawal owing to a slew of injuries paved the way for a young and dynamic leader in Meg Lanning. The hard-hitting batter, who at 21 is Australia's youngest captain, is also currently the No. 1-ranked batter in T20 Internationals.
Understandably, there has been some talk of Lanning in the opposition camp, which she politely chose to downplay. “It's not something I take much notice of, honestly," she said on Saturday. "Rankings coming into the tournament mean nothing once you're in the middle. It's about being able to lift your game when the big moments arrive. Captaincy has also given me an opportunity to keep learning, and I'm happy to have received the kind of support I have from the support staff and my team-mates. "
The void left by Fields won't be restricted to just the captaincy, but also behind the stumps. But the team management should be credited for handing opportunities to several fringe players in the lead-up to the tournament. Among them is Alyssa Healy, niece of Ian Healy, the former Australia wicketkeeper, who will don the gloves.
Healy hasn't enjoyed the kind of opportunities she would have wanted with Fields at the helm, but has impressed in the limited chances she has had. In Alex Blackwell, the vice-captain, and Jess Cameron, the side has a power-packed batting line-up, with each capable of singlehandedly turning a match around.
In the bowling department, too, Holly Ferling, a rookie pacer, replaced Ellyse Perry at the ICC Women's World Cup last year and picked up three wickets to help Australia beat England by two runs in a crucial fixture. Erin Osborne taking over as the lead spinner after Lisa Sthalekar's retirement has also gone well.
While Australia, the defending champion, is keen to put the twin Ashes failures in August and January behind it, New Zealand is on an upswing, having blanked West Indies in the One-Day Internationals as well as the T20Is at home.
However, it is short on experience with as many as four uncapped players making up the squad of 15. It has been patchy in the warm-up fixtures and would do well to erase from memory a demoralising eight-wicket loss to England in its second warm-up fixture on Friday, where it was shot out for 48.
Understandably, the batters trained long and hard under the watchful eyes of Warren Less, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper, who coached the men's team to the semifinal of the 1992 World Cup. Suzie Bates, the captain, was all praise for his methods and ability to bring the team together. “He's been like a breath of fresh air for us," she said. “Someone of his experience coming into the group is fantastic. He's been at these tournaments before and [his inputs] will help us. He's brought back the fun factor into this group.”
Bates is the batting mainstay, but Sophie Devine and Sarah McGlashan add the X-factor to a line-up that prides itself on playing enterprising cricket. “That's just the way we've all grown up playing really,” said Bates. “We have some big hitters in our team, we like to be aggressive.”
Aggression aside, the key to the contest of equals would lie in how quickly both teams adapt to the pitches in Sylhet as compared to the ones encountered back home.
Australia: Meg Lanning (capt), Alex Blackwell, Alyssa Healy (wk), Nicole Bolton, Jess Cameron, Sarah Coyte, Rene Farrell, Holly Ferling, Ellyse Perry, Julie Hunter, Jess Jonassen, Beth Mooney, Delissa Kimmince.
New Zealand: Suzie Bates (capt), Sophie Devine, Nicola Browne, Samantha Curtis, Maddy Green, Holly Huddleston, Hayley Jensen, Felicity Leydon-Davis, Sarah McGlashan (wk), Frances Mackay, Katey Martin, Morna Neilson, Katie Perkins, Rachel Priest.