Sydney: With the World Cup in the back of their minds, favourites Australia and England will lock horns in the opening match of the ODI cricket tri-series here on Friday, looking to test their squads one last time in the final lead-up to next month's mega-event.
High on confidence after the 2-0 Test series win over India, the Australians will face England at the Sydney Cricket Ground tomorrow before renewing hostilities with the reigning World Cup title holders in Melbourne on Sunday.
The tri-series is seen as a final warm-up for all the three teams ahead of the World Cup, to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand in less than a month's time. The series will provide players of all the three teams opportunity to find their form and stake a claim in the final XI of their respective sides in the World Cup.
The series will be specially vital for England as the team would look to settle down under new captain Eoin Morgan. In a big decision, England replaced Alastair Cook with Morgan as captain in less than two months before the World Cup to improve their chances.
Under Morgan's leadership, England have piled up runs in their two warm-up games in Canberra, scoring a total of 755. Ian Bell has been in threatening form as he blasted 187 off 145 balls in the 60-run win over the Prime Minister's XI yesterday.
But skipper Morgan is in desperate need of runs, having scored just one fifty in his past 19 ODI innings. To add to Morgan's woes, England's ODI form has been poor off late and they will look to regain the winning touch after last year's series losses at home to Sri Lanka and India, and away to Sri Lanka.
The series is also a chance for England to better their ODI record in Australia. Since their 2006-07 tour, England have played 12 ODIs in Australia but have managed to register only two wins, the last of which came in Sydney.
Australia, on the other hand, are one of the favourites to lift the World Cup but will be without their inspirational skipper Michael Clarke in the tri-series as he is still recovering from a hamstring surgery.
In Clarke's absence, Twenty20 captain George Bailey will lead the side with Steve Clarke as his deputy. Just like England, the tri-series is also an opportunity for Australia, some of whose players are battling fitness and form issues, to settle their possible World Cup team.
Playing for the Prime Minister's XI, all-rounder Glenn Maxwell smashed 136 off only 89 balls against England and looked set to explode in the tri-series.
But skipper Bailey desperately needs runs to cement his place in the team because if Clarke regains his fitness before the World Cup it is highly unlikely the former will feature in the playing XI. Among others, Mitchell Marsh is still recovering from a hamstring injury and is unlikely to be considered until the later part of the series.
Pace spearhead Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood too could be rested, which means a home-town ODI debut for Gurinder Sandhu. To add to it, the tri-series is also an opportunity for Australia to consolidate their position at the top of ODI rankings ahead of India. Australia edged India at the top of the ODI rankings after defeating South Africa 4-1 at home in November.
Australia: George Bailey (captain), Steve Smith, Pat Cummins, Xavier Doherty, James Faulkner, Aaron Finch, Brad Haddin, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Marsh Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Starc, David Warner, Shane Watson, Gurinder Sandhu.
England: Eoin Morgan (captain), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler, Steven Finn, Alex Hales, Chris Jordan, Joe Root, James Taylor, James Tredwell, Chris Woakes.