Niall O’Brien: Buttler can deliver England to the final at 15/2

England are one game away from the World Cup final, but the old enemy Australia stand in the way. Who'll come out on top on Thursday?

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To give credit to South Africa, they finally turned up for the final group game. It was probably the best wicket for batting at the World Cup so far at Old Trafford – fast, bouncy – and there was an unbelievable atmosphere for the game given South Africa were already out.

That seemed to get through to the Proteas and they played out of their skin. The Aussies weren’t bad, just a little bit off the pace with the ball, but South Africa were excellent. Captain Faf du Plessis got a great century, Rassie van der Dussen just fell short of one, and in the chase, Australia were always behind.

It means they now have to face England rather than the much easier task of New Zealand as everyone had expected.

The Australians are generally quite cocky and brash though, so the loss won’t hamper them too much. David Warner’s still scoring runs and he’ll be his usual confident, out-going self, so he’ll be rallying the troops if they are feeling down after it.

Steven Smith is due a big score. He’s had a few low ones recently and he’s not the kind of player that misses out too often. He should’ve been batting at three through the tournament as he’s been a bit wasted at four and spent too much time in the pavilion watching games, especially when they’ve got off to good starts. Khawaja played quite nicely there but Steven Smith coming out at 70 or 80-1 has a long time to bat. I think that’ll be a good move for them to make.

And their bowling with Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Jason Behrendorff is strong too, so this should be a close game, though the loss of Khawaja and possibly Stoinis could tilt it in England’s favour.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven Smith got a hundred in this and that could turn the game for Australia. They’ill need something special with the bat to win for sure, as England are the side to beat at the moment.

Mitchell Starc Australia

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Aussies depleted

And now they’ve picked up a few injuries too. The allrounder Marcus Stoinis has a side strain and is in some doubt for the semi but is expected to play, while batsman Usman Khawaja is out of the tournament completely. He’s a massive loss.

They’ve Peter Handscomb in the squad, and he’s lined up to come in. He’s played well at international level for Australia in the recent past. Matthew Wade’s also been drafted in and though he wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement for Khawaja he could be put in high up the order or feature if Glenn Maxwell or Stoinis don’t make the cut.

If Stoinis were to miss out it really upsets the balance of the team with bat and ball. He’s more reliable than Nathan Coulter-Nile so they’ll want Stoinis in the team if he can play.

Mitchell Starc didn’t bowl brilliantly to start the game against South Africa, but he bounced back to take a couple of wickets. He is heavily strapped up though.

You can’t argue with the wickets column even if he’s bowling not as well as he can. Even at 85% fitness, he’s better than most bowlers at 100% so as long as he can get out there he’ll give England plenty to think about. He’s their best bowler and the lynchpin of their attack. It’s been a long tournament and he hasn’t had much downtime. His body will be feeling the heat at this stage.

All of which means more plus points for England’s chances of making the final. Australia are severely hampered by these knocks.

Stars aligning for England

England have had their troubles too. Not too long ago we were worried about Jason Roy. He’s back fit and in great nick. England got their injuries out of the way at the right time.

They’ve had a bit of break since their last game. They went along to watch a bit of Wimbledon and relax. I presume they’d have had a few days off and went back to training on Monday and Tuesday. They’ll be well prepared and well rested.

It feels like the stars are aligning for this team. They expected to play India in this game at Edgbaston and to have a majority of the supporters cheering for the visitors, but the way it panned they don’t have to face that now.

They’ve had a few hiccups along the way, important injuries and criticism as well, but it seems destined to be home final for England at Lords on Sunday –  and against New Zealand!

They couldn’t have wished for more.

CHESTER-LE-STREET, ENGLAND – JULY 03: Mark Wood of England celebrates bowling Matt Henry of New Zealand during the Group Stage match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 between England and New Zealand at Emirates Riverside on July 03, 2019 in Chester-le-Street, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

England at their best can’t be stopped

If England play as well as they can, they’ll have too much for Australia. The toss has been crucial in a lot of the games recently though, and that could give Aaron Finch’s side some hope.16 of the teams batting first have won in the last 20 games. That’s an outrageous stat to have it so one-sided. There’ll be a lot riding on it, and Finch hasn’t had a great run calling them so far in the tournament, so maybe the luck of the Irish will be shining on Eoin Morgan on Thursday in Birmingham.

Everyone will want to bat first at this stage, get runs on the board, teams aren’t coping with the pressure of chasing. You don’t need 350 – post 300 and you’re in any game.

England will have the mindset that they’ve had their blip and now they’re back playing well. They’ll be looking for more of the same after beating New Zealand and India to get back on track,

There’s a bit more added pressure in a semi-final, but they won’t over complicate it. It’s all about who copes with the pressure best. Australia are scrambling a bit now with the injuries they’ve had, whereas England look very relaxed. They know that if they play to their full potential Australia can’t stop them. Deep down, the Aussies will know they need England to have a slightly off-day to win.

It should be a fresh wicket for the semi-final, so there’s no need for England to bring in the extra spinner. Eoin Morgan and the management will be very happy with the eleven that’ve won the last two games. Liam Plunkett’s doing a good job, I like him in all facets of the game and he’s good in the dressing room too. It’s tough on Moeen Ali to be missing out, but they should stick with the same team.

Jonny Bairstow’s on for three centuries in a row – no English player had two in a row at a World Cup before him – and he’s still hungry for more, but I wonder if this isn’t the kind of game where Australia might get on top early but Joe Root repairs the damage and gets a big score. Jos Buttler’s also had a quiet run with the bat, maybe he’ll be the one to bail England out if they fall behind.

Niall’s pick of the punts: Jos Buttler Top England Batsman @ 15/2

Steven Smith Top Match Batsman @ 7/1

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