How Australia’s T20 World Cup title defence fell apart piece by piece

So the end came not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers. Defending champions, the home team, and still punted from the Twenty20 World Cup in the group stage, Australia’s early finish was put in place piece by piece.

The hosts couldn’t stop Ireland or Afghanistan from smashing runs, and couldn’t rack up a big enough score to dominate either. Failure was confirmed when a limp England flopped past Sri Lanka, in turn passing Australia to claim a semi-final spot that neither team really deserved.

It started, of course, when Australia got dismantled by New Zealand in the opening match. Not so much because they lost, nor even because they conceded 200, but because they fell apart while chasing to be all out for 111.

There was a point at which the game was gone but the margin could still be influenced, and adding another 40 runs might have made all the difference to that critical measure of net run rate. But instead of batting through the overs, the Australians swung wildly and were bowled out.

From there, a team that never looked at ease in the tournament stumbled through its group. It was unexpected given the big scores that they had racked up against India and England in the preceding weeks of preparation, and given the fact that almost the identical team had won the trophy in Dubai less than a year ago while far less suited to those conditions.

The success of that campaign was partly down to a Test pace attack of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood supported by lone spinner Adam Zampa, an unconventional configuration in Asia. It prospered, the quicks taking 25 wickets while Zampa took 13. Helpful for a team that got to bowl first six times out of seven and restrict the opposition.

Australia’s 2021 triumph was partly down to winning six tosses out of seven and bowling first each time, establishing a method of applying pressure and then a chase. And partly it was down to David Warner, second in the competition with 289 runs, getting Australia off to a good start almost every time.

It was fair enough to think that this had a good chance of working again so soon afterwards. Warner has a prodigious record on home soil, while the faster and bouncier conditions should have suited Australia’s quicks.

It just didn’t work. Where the campaign in the UAE saw them collectively average 24 runs and 18 deliveries per wicket, this year’s home campaign averaged 32 and 24. A whole extra over per wicket is significant in the short form of the game. Warner, meanwhile, made 44 runs at barely six per over.

Hindsight is always acute, like criticising the call to include Kane Richardson for the Afghanistan match before he conceded 48 runs. Richardson is acknowledged within the Australian camp as their best T20 defensive bowler, and picking him meant finally leaving out a bigger name with strong claims of being able to deliver a result. The same would have applied if Nathan Ellis had made the side as another T20 specialist.

Starc is the original white-ball destroyer, Hazlewood is the world’s most improved in the format, and Cummins has a wealth of IPL experience and can bat. It was always hard to omit any of them. Australia just looked like a team that never clicked, and remained too anxious to take the risks required of the situation.

When needing to thrash Ireland for net run rate, Aaron Finch crawled through the first half of the innings at a run a ball before flattering his score with one big over and getting out. When having Ireland 25 for 5, the bowlers kept feeding Lorcan Tucker length balls that he kept hitting for boundaries. Similarly, when Rashid Khan was tee-balling everything for Afghanistan, the bowlers kept providing the ammo.

At other times, Australia looked like a team that others have caught up to, at least for now. The Sri Lanka match was heading for disaster before Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis wrenched it back. Needing to make a huge score against Afghanistan was one thing, but their opponents’ defensive bowling was just too good. They have good fast bowlers now, unafraid. Fazalhaq Farooqi lasered in his yorkers. Naveen-ul-Haq bowled slower balls so spongy and looping that nobody could hit them. Australia changing the batting order would probably not have made a difference.

As is the habit in Australian cricket, a failed campaign will lead to a clean-out. Just about every player north of the 30 barrier will probably be ejected. Steve Smith, Finch, Matthew Wade, perhaps even Warner, will be judged to have reached the end of the road. Cummins and Hazlewood will likely be too valuable to the Test and ODI sides, and Starc might need to show some venom.

Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis and Mitchell Marsh did their job with the bat and will likely continue, while Tim David deserves more of a shot after getting to face only 18 balls in the tournament. T20 cricket is volatile and ever-changing. Perhaps we should not be surprised that opting for stability did not work.