Injury woes overshadow host Australia's WCup preparations
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Darren Lehmann's Australia squad should be full of confidence and ideally placed in its preparations for the World Cup, given the location of the tournament, its form and its ranking.
Despite holding No. 1 spot and following resounding series wins over India and England this summer, though, the World Cup co-hosts are dealing with uncertainty over the composition of the squad and the status of Michael Clarke's captaincy.
News that James Faulkner will miss at least the start of the World Cup due to a side strain is the latest distraction for a team already sweating on Clarke's rehabilitation from a serious hamstring injury.
Faulkner, who scored a 24-ball half century last Sunday in a 112-run victory over England in the tri-series final, has also been Australia's leading ODI wicket-taker this the season.
Lehmann said while he expected Faulkner to miss Australia's Feb. 14 opener against England, he was hopeful of having the all-rounder back for the remainder of the tournament.
''It's not as bad as first thought, which is a great sign for us because James is a really important player,'' Lehmann said.
Clarke has been given until Feb. 21 to prove he has recovered from his persistent hamstring and back problems. Should he do so, Australia could be in the unusual position of fielding three captains in its starting XI, with George Bailey having led the ODI team in Clarke's absence and Steve Smith deputizing as test skipper.
''At the end of the day he's captain of our country and we want him playing in the World Cup,'' Lehmann said. ''Technically he's excellent and batting-wise he's second to none when he's in form.''
As well as England, Australia is grouped with co-host New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Scotland and Afghanistan in Pool A, with the top four teams advancing to the quarterfinals.
Australia is the most successful team in World Cup history, with four titles, and is a clear favorite to advance through to the knockout stages.
Smith reveled in the role of leading the test team against India earlier this summer, winning widespread support for his captaincy skills as well as his prowess with the bat.
Bailey, meanwhile, managed just 21 runs from his three ODI innings and his place at No. 5 in the batting lineup could be in jeopardy despite his more than capable stewardship of the team against India and England.
''George, like everyone else, will have to play well to make the final XI,'' Lehmann said. ''There's no difference between a top player and the 15th player.''
Luckily, Smith is able and willing to assume the captaincy if needed and is in the form of his life. Clarke has also stated he would be happy to play under Smith if the selectors deemed it in the best interests of stability.
But Lehmann says Clarke remains the first choice.
''I think 12 months ago (people) were saying we don't have enough leaders in our group, so I'm pretty comfortable we've got enough leaders going around,'' he said. ''So whoever is captain at the time will play the way we've molded our game plan. That's Michael first and foremost, then George, and if they're both not there, then it's Steven.''
The Australian squad has a strong core and bats deep and has matured under the guidance of Lehmann, who was involved in Australia's winning World Cup campaign in 1999 - the first of three straight titles.
Hard-hitting - and hot-tempered - David Warner smashed his third ODI century in the first match of the tri-series last month against England.
Warner, along with Aaron Finch, offer Australia a formidable opening pair, with allrounder Glenn Maxwell and the likes of Mitch March offering welcome firepower with Smith.
With Mitchell Johnson sitting out most of the recent tri-series, fellow left-arm paceman Mitchell Starc proved his worth - highlighted by a six-wicket haul against India in the second match in Melbourne - before Johnson returned to blast out three England batsmen in the final.
Josh Hazlewood, meanwhile, looked dangerous with the new ball and will vye for a place in the pace attack with Pat Cummins, while allrounder Shane Watson will be expected to produce with the ball as well as the bat.
Xavier Doherty will round out the bowling where needed, beating out test specialist and fellow-offspinner Nathan Lyon into the World Cup squad.