Australia Women eye 2017 World Cup qualification

prv_2b926_1474133668Outclassed by a less fancied West Indies side in the 2016 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 finale, Australia have quickly shifted their focus on the next title. Six-time winners and defending champions in the 50-over format, Australia will begin their new season with an eye on 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup qualification as they take on hosts Sri Lanka Women in a four-match One-Day International (ODI) series, starting Sunday (September 18) at Dambulla.

Australia’s maiden limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka comprises of four ODIs, last three of which will count towards the ICC Women’s Championship, and a lone Twenty20 International. Comfortably placed at the top of the Championship table, Australia have 24 points from their 15 games after five rounds and are just one point away from gaining an automatic qualification for the 2017 mega event to be held in England.

The hosts Sri Lanka Women, on the other hand, are reeling at the bottom of the eight-team table with just five points from their 15 games thus far. To top it, the home team will also be without their regular skipper and one of the most experienced campaigners Shashikala Siriwardena. The 93-game veteran picked up a hamstring injury in Sri Lanka’s first league game of the World T20 in India earlier this year and has been out of action since. With Siriwardena undergoing a minor surgery for a back injury, the selectors have handed the captaincy to Chamari Athapaththu, who also led the team for the remainder of the World T20. Wicketkeeper-bat Prasadini Weerakkody has been named her deputy.

Sri Lanka have named uncapped Inoshi Priyadarshani and Imalka Mendis in the 14-member squad which will also see Chamari Polgampola and Inoka Ranaweera making their ODI comeback after being ignored for the away tour of India in February earlier this year.

Up against a top-class team, the hosts are banking on the spin trio of Priyadarshani, Inoka Ranaweera and Sungandika Kumari to stage an upset, coach Lanka de Silva conceded.

“The Australian line-up has plenty of right-handers, and Inoka and Sugandika, our most experienced spinners in the side, should make it difficult for them,” the head coach said ahead of the first ODI. “We also have the off-breaks of Inoshi Priyadharshani and we are banking on the three of them to deliver.”

The bulk of batting responsibility will be on the experienced shoulders of Athapaththu, Eshani Lokusuriyage, Weerakoddy, Dilani Manodara and Polgampola.

“We have selected very talented players as new caps. Although they lack experience, if they perform to their potential, we can still pose a big challenge to Australia. The Australian players are physically stronger than us and they can go for big hits whenever needed, but we are confident that our spinners will try and keep them under the 200-run mark as much as possible,” stand-in skipper Athapaththu said ahead of the series opener.

Despite being on the opposite ends of the championship table, Australian skipper Meg Lanning is in no mood to take Athapaththu & Co. for granted.

“We go out there to win every game we play in, and this series is no different. We’ve been in pretty good form in one-day cricket, so we’re looking forward to testing ourselves in different conditions against a good team,” the top-ranked ODI batter said.

Lanning is also aware of the challenge the Sri Lankan conditions can pose for her side. “It’s going to be a challenge in different conditions with a fair bit of spin and slowness in the wickets, so it’ll be a good test for us but we’re all looking forward to it.

“Sri Lanka’s batting and bowling attacks are different to a lot of teams we play against, probably a little bit slower and (with) a lot of spinners, so that’s going to be a good test. Their batters probably hit to different areas as well so it will be a different challenge but a good one for our group to take on,” Lanning added.

Apart from conditions, however, Australia have a few injury concerns in their camp. The Sri Lanka series is the beginning of a five-month long season for the world champions and a number of star performers in the squad have fitness issues that need to be monitored closely.

The 23-year-old all-rounder Jess Jonassen and pacer Megan Schutt are both returning after recovering from knee injuries in the off season. Skipper Lanning herself is coming back after a shoulder injury that forced her to withdraw from the inaugural edition of England’s Super League. Ellyse Perry is expected to lead the pace attack but is also known to be carrying a slight niggle.

Having said, despite the fact that the first of the four ODIs contributes no points to the championship standings, the visitors are expected to field a full-strength side on Sunday.

Australia Women lead the head-to-head of their ODI encounters by 3-0 margin.

The first and the second ODI will be played on Dambulla on September 18 and 20. The action moves to Colombo for the remainder of the series. The final two ODIs will be held at Khettarama on September 23 and 25 while the lone T20I will be played out at SSC on September 27. (Courtesy