Going into a World Cup off the back of a series victory should be cause for celebration, but Australia’s tri-series win over India and England was far from a comfortable joy-ride to one of the game’s showpiece tournaments.
After Australia negotiates a pair of final warm-up games in Brisbane and Adelaide, against the West Indies and South Africa respectively, there will be little room for error when the World Cup proper gets underway on February 21 with another clash against India.
A bad time to lose form
The women’s T20 World Cup starts in a little over a week and Australia is in something that, for them at least, constitutes a rare slump in form.
Having only lost three of its previous 26 matches in the shortest format, the hosts, defending champions and tournament favourites have lost two of their past five games.
Tellingly, both of those defeats came against two of Australia’s biggest rivals for the upcoming World Cup — India and England.
Granted, Australia avenged its super-over defeat to England in Canberra by knocking them out of the tri-series on Sunday in Melbourne, but the outcome was far from certain as the Aussies laboured to 7-132 before England capitulated, losing 4-17 on its way to bow out of the competition.
Nevertheless, it’s a bad time to develop the jitters.
No player has personified Australia’s struggles more than wicketkeeper and opening batter Alyssa Healy.
Healy recorded scores of 9, 1, 0, 1 and 4 in this tri-series at the top of the order.
To put that run into context, this is the first time Healy has failed to reach double figures in five consecutive T20I innings since her debut in 2010.
Despite that form, writing Healy off — and by proxy, Australia — would be dangerous.
Her last score before she fell into this rut was an unbeaten 148 in just 61 balls against Sri Lanka in Sydney last October.
Players are not concerned
So, how concerned should Australian fans be about their team’s apparent slump in form?
“I wouldn’t say [there are] concerns, because we haven’t lost by much,” Gardner said after Saturday’s defeat to India.
“I think if we got smashed it would be a different conversation, but we’ve only just lost those games.
“We always talk about winning the close ones and we haven’t won two of the three close ones, which is unfortunate.”
The fact of the matter is that before the tri-series, it had been a while since Australia has even played in a close T20 match.
In the nine T20 matches Australia has played in the past 12 months (prior to the tri-series), Australia won three matches by nine wickets and beat Sri Lanka, England and the West Indies by 132 runs, 93 runs and 41 runs respectively.
When Healy, Perry and Lanning were not at their best, Beth Mooney stepped up to top the scoring in the tri-series. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
None of those matches were tight enough to come down to the final over.
Australia has become so accustomed to not just beating opponents, but smashing them into submission to the extent that victory has almost become a formality before the first ball has been bowled.
Learning to win tough no bad thing
But in Australia’s five matches in the tri-series, victories were harder to come by.
As superficially concerning as it is that the opposition has gained a psychological advantage after the Australian team proved its mortality this series, things might not be as bad as they seem, and some tough defeats could help Australia knuckle down when the going gets tough in the World Cup.
New blood … Teenager Annabel Sutherland will be hoping to keep her spot for the World Cup. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
“It’s a good learning curve,” Gardner said after the India defeat.
“Obviously, these games don’t matter as much as the World Cup is going to matter.
“This tri-series is all about trying different things.
“If you look back at the 2017 World Cup, we probably didn’t have a plan B, we just thought plan A was always going to work.
“Over the past three years, we’ve had plan B and a plan C if things really aren’t going well. and I think we’ve been able to adapt a little bit quicker.”
Sophie Molineux agreed after the England game, when Australia managed to respond to the pressure of defending a low total and facing elimination from the tournament with a hard-fought win.
“To be able to pull it back like we did, we can be pretty proud of that because the last couple of games, we’ve let the game go a little bit,” Molineux said.
“We’ve definitely got the World Cup on our minds, but at the same time, we want to win this tri-series and build that momentum heading into a World Cup.”
On that front, mission accomplished.
But the proof will be if Australia is able to cope when the pressure is really on at the World Cup next month.