Can anyone stop Australia? Hosts target fifth title at women's T20 World Cup
Mighty Australia go into their home Twenty20 Cricket World Cup this week as overwhelming favourites as they look to cement their superiority in women's cricket and draw a world-record crowd in the process.
Meg Lanning's defending champions, and four-time winners, were rarely tested through the second half of 2019 when they whitewashed an injury-ravaged West Indies and a developing Sri Lanka team in the short format.
Giving a glimmer of hope to their rivals, they surprisingly slumped to defeat against major rivals India and England this month, before rallying to win the warm-up tri-series.
"To be put under pressure like this heading into a World Cup is extremely good preparation," Lanning insisted.
Despite the recent losses, Australia are widely expected to contest the March 8 final at the Melbourne Cricket Crowd, where organisers are hoping to draw a world-record attendance for a women's sporting fixture.
The cavernous MCG holds 100,000 fans, while the record stands at 90,185 for the 1999 football World Cup final when the United States beat China on penalties in Pasadena, California.
It is hard to look past Australia -- who are paid as much as the men's national team, and play domestic T20 cricket in the popular Women's Big Bash League -- as one of the potential finalists.
Along with Lanning, Australia boasts wicketkeeper-batswoman Alyssa Healy, all-rounder Ellyse Perry and bowling sensation Jess Jonassen, all among the world's best.
They have been dominant since the World Cup was introduced 11 years ago, winning four of the six tournaments so far and crushing England by eight wickets in the 2018 final in the West Indies.
The only other teams to lift the trophy were England on home soil in 2009 and the West Indies in 2016.
Lanning's side open the 10-team tournament on Friday in Sydney against an Indian side boosting teen batting sensation Shafali Verma.
"We play some very different teams in this World Cup who have very different styles of play, so for us it'll purely come down to what we feel the best combination is," Lanning said on how the side might line up.
"But I'm extremely confident anyone we put out on the park will do well."
- 'Our strength is spin' -
Australia and India are 2-2 across their last four meetings and Indian skipper Harmanpreet Kaur said her side had improved markedly since the last World Cup, when they lost to England in the semi-finals.
"If I look back two years, India's 50-over side was doing well and our T20 was struggling. But in the past two years, we have transformed as a T20 team and are very positive going to Australia," she wrote in a column.
"All of the teams have strengths -- but so do we. Our strength is spin," she added, with the dangerous Radha Radav and Poonam Radav among their ranks.
Seasoned West Indies skipper Stafanie Taylor knows what it is like to win a World Cup, having led her team to victory in 2016, when she was player of the tournament.
The 28-year-old, who recently notched up her 100th T20 cap and has played at every World Cup, believes her side can repeat the feat, particularly with fellow veteran Deandra Dottin back from injury, along with Shamilia Connell and Shakera Selman.
"It's going to be a challenge, we as a team know that, but we need to make sure that we focus on ourselves and not what is going on around us," she said ahead of their opener against debutantes Thailand in Perth on Saturday.
"That will be the way for us to be successful over the next few weeks."
England, who play South Africa on Sunday, are also candidates for the knockout phase, with skipper Heather Knight warning: "From 1-15, we've got a squad that can win games of cricket."