A year back from now, Australian cricket was struck with a catastrophe that would haunt them for the years to come. Their captain and vice-captain along with a young team member were involved in the infamous scandal of ball tampering during the Newlands Test in March 2019.
It changed everything in the Australian cricket's setup. Their coach Darren Lehmann resigned, Cricket Australia chairman David Peever stepped down and they were suddenly without their best batsmen and leaders.
Captain Steven Smith and his deputy David Warner were handed a year's ban each for their role in the wrong-doing. The young opener, Cameron Bancroft, who allegedly was ordered to execute the disgraceful plan, was handed a nine-month suspension.
As a result, the incident opened doors for several people: from Justin Langer, who was appointed their new head coach to Tim Paine, who rejuvenated his career by accepting the Test captaincy to Usman Khawaja, who did not waste any time in grabbing the rare opportunity of becoming Australia's new regular opener in the ODIs.
The 'New' Australia
In the absence of Warner and Smith, Australia hit rock bottom when they suffered their maiden Test series loss to India at home in as many as 70 long years. They lost three back-to-back ODI series. Even before cricket entered the World Cup year 2019, everyone had written off the five-time World Champions, Australia.
As they say, dark days don't last forever and in this case, the Australian team was no exception. Their gloomy phase eventually ended, interestingly against the same Indian side, when Australia flew down to the sub-continent for an ODI and T20I series.
Against everyone's expectations, Aaron Finch's side defeated home favourites India in both the series and brought themselves back into the race to a record sixth title with the World Cup just around the corner.
The Australians, who were still under transition, proved everyone that the victory in India was no fluke when they thrashed Pakistan in their adopted home of the UAE in the five-ODI series.
While the Australians were fighting out in the heat of the UAE, their suspended brothers Smith and Warner were getting ready to make a comeback on the big stage – Indian Premier League (IPL).
Smith had a slow start in his returning game, Warner did not waste any time to announce his return and this time, he allowed his bat to do all the talking. On his comeback game, Warner hammered 53-ball 85 against Kolkata Knight Riders.
In his first three innings for the Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH), Warner shared a record three consecutive hundred-run opening stand with his new batting partner Jonny Bairstow.
By being SRH's key batsman so far in the IPL, Warner has shown no signs of being scratchy due to a year's break. His run-scoring has been smooth and with ease as though he had never gone.
Australia has witnessed a massive change of fate in the last couple of months. Until January, the side was miserable with the burden of one loss after another. But now, even though they are still in a dilemma, this is a positive one – the team selection dilemma!
Among Warner, Finch, and Khawaja, who will open for Australia in the World Cup?
Considering his history in the 50-over format and thanks to his excellent comeback in the IPL, Warner was included in Australia's World Cup squad along with Smith.
There was never a doubt about Warner's talent as an ODI batsman and the testimony to the same is the fact that he has been Australia's best since the 2015 World Cup despite missing one whole year of cricket.
Since March 31 to now, Warner averages 56 and overall, he is just behind the likes of Virat Kohli, Ross Taylor, Joe Root, and Faf du Plessis and this speaks volumes about him as an ODI opener.
Incumbent Aussie skipper Finch has hinted that Australia will go with a left-right-handed combination in the opening pair in the World Cup. That meant, either of Khawaja or Warner will open with him, while the other one will come one-down.
Among the two, only Khawaja has played at No. 3 in the ODIs but he does not have the numbers to back him up for the crucial slot. It might be a bit tricky getting a solution here but Aussie coach Langer has suggested that players will have to think about the team first and then their personal choice, in regards to the position where they will play.
"We have amazing flexibility now. Usman and Finchy have done an incredible job opening the batting. David and Finchy have done a great job in the past doing it. I love the flexibility of it. (It's about) boys playing their roles for the team not just playing the roles that suit them," a content Langer told SEN recently.
David Warner: Aussie's best choice
Bringing more perspective here, Khawaja would not be a part of Australia's ODI circuit had Warner been there in 2018. Prior to Khawaja's recall in 2019, he had last played in the yellow jersey about two years back in 2017 and was dropped due to repetitive failures in the format.
Contradicting to that, Warner was Australia's best ODI batsman time and again. He topped the runs-chart in 2016 ahead of Smith and Quinton de Kock. The following year, in 2017, while he did not touch the 1000-run mark, he was still Australia's highest run-getter in the year ahead of Travis Head and Smith.
While he has never batted at No. 3, Warner has scored the majority of runs as an opener. He has been prolific and consistent over the years with the bat and the numbers suggest that whenever he has done well, there were very few occasions when Australia found themselves on the losing side.
Dependency on Warner has been so much that, in his absence or during his bad patch, Australia have suffered massive series defeats.
Warner was the highest run-scorer in the home series against New Zealand followed by Pakistan (299 and 367 runs) and Australia won the two series with ease.
The team never suffered as a batting unit overall because Warner always laid the foundation on the top and that momentum carried forward to help the rest of the guys too.
In the next tour, when Australia flew down to New Zealand, Warner was given rest keeping in mind the upcoming Test series in India. As a result, Australian batters failed to deliver and ended up losing the series.
Even in the ODI series in India (2017) and against England at home (2017-18), Warner was not at his best, while no other batsmen stepped up to lead from the front with the bat. Hence the consequences were harsh as two more series were lost.
Along with these numbers backing Warner for the opener's role, he also has a terrific record with Finch as one of Australia's best openers in the white-ball game.
Having opened the innings in 48 matches for Australia, the pair of Finch-Warner is overall Australia's fourth best opening pair with 2,126 runs. Their best stand came two years back in India when they added 231 runs for the first wicket.
The two have so far shared five 100-run stands and 10 fifty-run stands. Although they have opened together just once in England, the venue for the World Cup 2019, they have played together a lot more than Finch-Khawaja and this factor could make a difference.
Khawaja must bat at 3
A year back, Khawaja was not even close to making it to the World Cup squad. However, with six fifties and two hundred in the last 13 innings, Khawaja has taken steps closer to playing in the World Cup.
Taking into consideration the current scenario of Australia's top-order, Australia would not want to drop an in-form Warner for Khawaja, who has never been consistent in the ODIs. But, it would be harsh to drop the latter, who has proved his worth in the last couple of months.
As Langer said, players will have to take up the role according to the demand of the team and not one's suitability. That could throw a massive challenge at Khawaja to bat at No. 3, a position where he averages just 24.33 from 10 innings.
However, he would have to fight for a place in the team with the return of Warner and Smith, who could bat at No. 3, ahead of Shaun Marsh who could come in at No. 4.
Where will Smith fit in XI?
Since the current Aussie squad lacks experience, they would not want to waste either of Warner and Smith, who not only strengthen the batting department but also the expertise that lacks in the young squad.
Hence, the captain and management might end up taking a harsh decision of dropping one of Khawaja or Marsh to fit the returning veterans in the XI.
Moreover, it won't be fair to pick Smith ahead of in-form players just for his experience. Unlike Warner, Smith has not impressed with the bat. While Warner is the current top-scorer in IPL 2019, Smith does not even feature in the top-20 and that could be a concern for Australia.
Hence, it will be a tough decision. Marsh was Australia's best batsman when they toured England last year. Khawaja has been in great touch, scoring runs in abundance.
Meanwhile, there is Smith, who has just two matches to earn the faith of the management in order to get a green signal for Australia's first World Cup match.
Ahead of Australia's campaign opener against Afghanistan, the team is set to play two warm-up matches against Sri Lanka and England. The two matches should help Australia finally decide their accurate XI for the multi-nation tournament, which begins on May 30.
About the Author
More than a sport, sportspersons have kept her engaged in work. She is a sports fanatic whose mantra in life is “do only what you enjoy". She tweets @sakshi2929.