Australia ready to rise to the occasion … again
What a difference eight games make. Australia - the undisputed World Cup kings with four of the past five trophies - enter the 2019 tournament as the form team after going 8-0 on the final stretch of their road to England. And that was before Steve Smith, David Warner and Mitchell Starc - who didn't play in any of those wins - returned.
Since then they have won four of five warm up matches, including a victory over tournament favourites England on their own turf.
That came off the back of a solid opening from Warner and a sublime century from Smith, who reduced the predictable booing to 'white noise' and struck cleanly out of the middle of the bat in a fashion that suggests his form has been unaffected by the trauma of his year out of the game.
Australia previously lost 22 out of 26 official ODIs to plummet in the rankings and the stunning form reversal was engineered by a game plan overhaul last December.
Out went the likes of six-machines Chris Lynn, D'Arcy Short and Test batsman Travis Head, replaced by players more adept at facing spin and, for the first time, twin tweakers in Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon.
THE BIGGEST WEAPON
Australia is loaded with game-changers but for all the attention on Smith, Warner and 2015 man of the tournament Starc, Pat Cummins appears ripe to dominate the best batsmen on the planet.
Cummins has 17 wickets from his past five ODIs at an average of just 10.9, striking every 15th delivery.
The tearaway quick hits a perfect length and bangs them in, as Virat Kohli found out quickly during the Test summer.
It is no wonder Australia sent Cummins home in cotton wool early during their 5-0 whitewash against Pakistan. At just 25 Cummins emerged from the dark times of the ball-tampering scandal as a shining light, and his powerful stroke play should also prove valuable at the top of the batting tail.
Captain Aaron Finch is certain to open and looks set to be partnered by left-hander Warner, who enjoyed an explosion of runs in the Indian Premier League.
That combination is the deadliest in world cricket, and delivered Australia the 2015 trophy. But who bats at No. 3? Is it natural opener Usman Khawaja or former captain Smith, who claimed Pete Handscomb's place in the 15-man squad?
Khawaja averages more than 50 at the top but only 24 at No. 3, while first-drop is where Smith does his best work. That means that despite Khawaja scoring the most ODI runs in 2019 he could find himself out of Australia's best XI, which would invite Shaun Marsh in as the batting anchor.
The top four will be followed by dynamic allrounder Maxwell - who can manipulate fields with his 360-degree hitting - and the powerful Marcus Stoinis, with keeper Alex Carey to play the traditional role at No.7.
Carey is certain to play every match as the only keeper in the squad and, should injury strike, either Handscomb, Matthew Wade or Tim Paine will be ushered in from the nearby Australia A tour.
Stoinis's strike-rate in the first 10 balls hovers at around 65 and so the pressure is on him not to waste balls early in his innings, while Maxwell is able to float up the order should Australia get off to a flyer.
The absence of Ashton Turner denies some specialist T20-like brutality in the middle order, although the tail is more capable than most, particular if it includes Nathan Coulter-Nile.
Josh Hazlewood was the shock omission with coach Justin Langer unwilling to take gambles on too many fragile quicks. But the Test ace will be in England as part of the Australia A squad and so if any of the other bowlers fall over he could be rushed in.
Left-armer Jason Behrendorff appears to be Starc's understudy while the absence through injury of Jhye Richardson is a blow but possibly not a decisive one.
His namesake replacement, Kane, is an able backup, and offers some degree of death bowling option, an area Australia are arguably light in.
Zampa, fresh from his best summer, and Lyon have worked well in tandem, although Lyon is likely to start the tournament mixing the drinks and waiting for the pitches to deteriorate a little bit.
Zampa's white-ball form in England is strong - he took 12 wickets for Essex in the 2018 T20 Blast. Pairing Zampa and Lyon is mimicking host nation England, which has long rolled out an offie and a leggie in Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.
Those late overs remain a concern but if Cummins and Starc can do early damage the heat will be off. Remember when Starc knocked over Brendon McCullum with the third ball of the 2015 final? Yes, of course you do.
THE CIRCUS ACT
The return of Smith and Warner is this World Cup's headline, and the reaction they draw from fans - as showcased at Southampton where even Smith's century was met with jeers - and rival players has the potential to test Australia's dressing room.
It'll be up to Langer and the cool, calm captaincy of Finch to ensure Australia handles the predictable sledging.
Opening games against Afghanistan and West Indies gives Australia a golden opportunity to reintegrate Smith and Warner while securing a pair of important wins. Given Afghanistan has access to 30 overs of quality spin - Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb - meeting them in Bristol isn't the worst result.
Saturday, June 1: Afghanistan (Bristol, 10.30pm)
Thursday, June 6: West Indies (Trent Bridge, 7.30pm)
Sunday, June 9: India (The Oval, 7.30pm)
Wednesday, June 12: Pakistan (Taunton, 7.30pm)
Saturday, June 15: Sri Lanka (The Oval, 7.30pm)
Thursday, June 20: Bangladesh (Trent Bridge, 7.30pm)
Tuesday, June 25: England (Lord's, 7.30pm)
Saturday, June 29: New Zealand (Lord's, 10.30pm)
Saturday, July 6: South Africa (Old Trafford, 10.30pm)