In the spiteful spirit of cricket’s greatest rivalry, England’s most sanctimonious sports lovers have salivated at the prospect of making Australian lives miserable this winter — as Australians have so often done when hosting the Old Enemy.
With a further World Cup meeting in the knockout stages possible and an Ashes series in which the home team will still start favourites to come, well-sharpened English knives could well be twisted.
But against the grain (sandpaper joke not intended!) comes a chance for the Australians to defy their self-inflicted behavioural wounds and the doubts surrounding form and selection that preceded this long campaign, and inflict the first painful blow.
Lord’s Cricket Ground: Next up at Lord’s… @englandcricket v @CricketAus #LoveLords #ENGvAUS
Tuesday night’s World Cup group game at Lord’s was supposed to be a pressure test for a still patchy Australian line-up, while Steve Smith and David Warner were subjected to the most venomous of the ritual jeering that has abated somewhat against other opponents.
But England’s defeats by Pakistan and, most abjectly, Sri Lanka have diminished the pre-tournament favourites’ aura and, at a stretch, even their prospects of making the semi-finals of a tournament that is supposed to be the scene of their coronation.
Perhaps the greatest indication of the sudden tremors that have gone through England since the home team was bowled out for just 212 by Sri Lanka is that even the most ardent cheerleaders among the ex-players in the commentary box have been scathing.
“You wouldn’t expect this from schoolboys,” tweeted Vaughan, whose body of work on Twitter demonstrates a keen personal appreciation of the adolescent mindset.
Of course, as the Matildas might tell you, criticism is usually proportional to expectation and the massive expectations of this England team were based on the apparent certainty that they, better than any other nation, had bridged the slogging gap between T20 cricket and the contemporary one day international.
England had cracked the mystery of how to maintain a sustained 50-over bombardment by assembling cricket’s version of the New York Yankees’ fabled Murderers Row.
Playing the roles of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig et al were the muscular axemen Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes and Joss Butler. Batsmen whose brutality complemented Joe Root’s wonderful guile.
Yet after England, without the injured Roy, capitulated on a grainy pitch and in the face of the vastly experienced Sri Lankan slingshot Lasith Malinga, suddenly the question of whether their sluggers were capable of finding the second gear sometimes necessary over a long tournament against bowlers with varying strengths and variations hung in the air like one of Morgan’s hefty swipes.
In turn their opponents, starting with Australia, will hope the first seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of English batsmen whose only concern entering the tournament seemed to be whether they would, as the local media demanded, become the first ODI team to score 500.
If the England batsmen are humbled by unexpected defeat it seems unlikely the local crowd will suffer similar misgivings.
The Australians, and particularly Smith and Warner, can expect a raucous reception and the now customary display of “hilarious” sandpaper-themed hijinks.
To date, such routine vilification seems only to have hardened the resolve of Smith and Warner. So much so that, in Warner’s case, an unusually ponderous run rate (by his usually explosive standards) has some wondering if his determination to make a statement in this tournament is slowing Australia’s momentum.
Cricket World Cup tweet: What. A. Week. #CWC19
But if leading the tournament scoring with 447 runs in a team that has just lost one game is Warner’s greatest sin, then surely even those who believe the prodigal opener can do no right have scant grounds for criticism.
More pressing is the need to finalise a batting order that has been shuffled more than a pack of beach house playing cards on a rainy day. Most pertinently, is Usman Khawaja the right man at number three or should Steve Smith be promoted so that the in-form Glenn Maxwell gets more time to turn on the pyrotechnics at number four?
Then there is an attack that seems vulnerable if Mitchell Starc and Patrick Cummins don’t strike early, and continues to beg questions such as why Josh Hazlewood is trundling away for Australia A when he might provide an experienced alternative at the pointy end of this World Cup.
Yet for all the usual hand wringing about selection, Australia sits second on the table, is all but assured a semi-finals berth and, as it has done during five successful attempts, is finding ways to win World Cup games as it goes.
In tournament sport it is often the team that gathers momentum rather than the one that arrives apparently at its competitive peak, as England seemed to have done, that prevails.
But regardless what lies ahead, in the first meaningful encounter of many this winter the pressure is on England to demonstrate its dominance, not Australia to show its humbled contrition; another sudden twist in international cricket’s oldest tale.