Cricket World Cup Preview

This time last year, the world was settling down for one of the biggest sporting events on the global stage, as the FIFA World Cup got underway in Russia. This year, there is a World Cup of a very different kind to capture the imagination of the sporting world. The top cricket teams on the planet have assembled in the UK for a tournament that will start on May 30 and culminate, 48 games later, in the final on July 14.

It's the sport's showpiece event, and is taking place at the home of cricket. You can get a full run down of every team's chances in Sportsbet's essential guide to Cricket WC 2019, but it is worth noting that over recent months, much of the talk has centered around the difficulties faced by Australia, the defending champions and the most successful team in World Cup history. Usually the team to beat, Australia has been battling a combination of bad form and controversy. Yet like all truly great teams, they look to be bouncing back when it matters most.

What went wrong down under?

Back in March of last year, Australia's captain and vice captain, Steve Smith and David Warner, were both served with 12-month bans for ball tampering. In any other team, that might well have spelt the end of their careers, but despite the Australian Prime Minister and Cricket Australia saying all the right things, the world champions are a pragmatic bunch of people.

Smith and Warner are two of the most destructive batsmen in the world, and during their absence, Australia visibly struggled, suffering the ignominy of a 5-0 whitewash at the hands of England, and being defeated in both the ODI and test series by India later in the year.

This led to Australia slipping down the rankings, and most shockingly of all, being seen as an outsider for the World Cup. Bear in mind that this is the team that has won the event five times, more than the second and third most successful teams put together. Also, they have won four of the five World Cups to be contested since the turn of the millennium.

For Australia to be anything less than runaway favorites is unexpected. But for them to be ranked behind both England and India in the weeks leading up to the event is one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. However, many pundits have warned that the champions should not be dismissed lightly, and the immediate return of Smith and Warner to the ranks once their bans were concluded has suggested that things might be back to business as usual.

Pantomime villains and the usual suspects

The rivalry between the England and Australian cricket teams is one that has been running for more than 100 years. Despite its reputation as a "gentleman's sport" there was only ever going to be one reaction to Smith and Warner's return to English shores, and it was as predictable as the chilly weather and warm beer in the pre-tournament warm-up match at Southampton's Rose Bowl on Saturday.

As the villains of the piece walked out into the middle, there was a cacophony of sound from the stands, and none of it was positive. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Christmas had come early and the pantomime season was upon us, such was the vehemence and volume of the boos.

For both men, however, it seemed only to drive them on. Warner scored a composed 43, while Smith looked entirely untroubled, reaching 116 off just 102 deliveries. Even his 50 and 100 were greeted with booing instead of the usual polite applause that cricket spectators usually grant, even to opposing batsmen, on reaching such landmarks.

The net result was a competitive total of 297-9 for Australia, of which England fell a tantalizing 12 runs short, bowled out for 285 in the final over, despite a typically brutal 52 from 31 deliveries coming from the bat of Jos Buttler.

What does this say for the World Cup?

One swallow does not make a summer, but this is nevertheless an important result that could shape the tournament ahead. England have been favorites with the bookmakers for months now, but fans and pundits alike have always been aware of the home team's ability to self-destruct on the largest stage. They've never won a World Cup, despite having made two finals over the years, and will be desperate to do so. Eoin Morgan's unit is the best ODI team England has ever had, and there will never be a better opportunity to lift the biggest trophy of them all.

But will the weight of expectation prove too heavy? It has happened in the past, and while the bookmakers still have faith, the odds on both the hosts and India have just started to drift, while Australia have now shortened to 5/4 to make the final and 4/1 to win it.

England faces another warm-up match against the inexperienced but talented Afghanistan team on Monday. If they slip up again, expect those odds to really start to move. At the same time, Australia will be taking on Sri Lanka, again at the Rose Bowl. They can expect the same soundtrack from the Southampton crowds, although if the net result is the same, some England fans might start to wonder if they would be better off returning to polite applause.

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