Bristol   -  After noteworthy wins in both their warm-up matches, Australia, the defending champions, begin as hot favourites against Afghanistan in the fourth match of the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019 Saturday.

The Aussies have lived up to their reputation, peaking just at the right time. Not many would’ve given them a chance until a few months ago, but emphatic series wins in India and UAE, and the return of their stalwarts, Steve Smith and David Warner, makes them one of the most dangerous sides in the tournament.

While Aaron Finch hasn’t been able to carry his form in the warm-ups, Usman Khawaja’s consistency adds up to a formidable top order. Their bowling unit is as strong as any in this World Cup, with skills and experience alike in both pace and spin departments. A collective, well-rounded performance in both the warm-ups, including a 12-run win against hosts and tournament favourites England, present enough challenge for the skipper and the staff to pick the final eleven.

Steve Smith’s century against the hosts, England, in their first warm-up game gave us a fair glimpse of his skills and a staggering fortitude. His abilities to counter spin with his sublime wrists, would come in handy against the quality of Rashid and Nabi in the middle overs.

On the other hand, a heavy defeat to England in their last warm-up, by no means, would dismay the ever-confident Afghanistan side. They might be the least experienced team in terms of ICC tournament appearances, but are capable of unsettling any opposition with a skilled set of match-winners in their ranks.

While their win against Pakistan gave a further evidence of their capabilities as a unit, a batting collapse against hosts England would’ve acted as an eye-opener. Skipper Gulbadin Naib will hope for a good start from his top-order batsmen against a strong Australian bowling unit. Considering the opposition, the enigmatic spin trio of Rashid, Nabi and Mujeeb might well have a strong influence in the game’s outcome.

Currently ranked third in the ICC ODI Rankings for bowlers, 20-year old Rashid Khan will look to bring his experience of playing against most of the Australian batsmen in the Big Bash League, into play in batting friendly conditions in Bristol.

Saturday is expected to be a fine, dry and warm day, with lengthy spells of sunshine. West Indies amassed 421 against New Zealand here in their final warm-up game on Tuesday and another run-fest can be expected with short boundaries at the County Ground. Dry conditions might bring spinners into play as it did in Afghanistan’s win against Pakistan last week.

Australia captain Aaron Finch has warned his side they cannot afford to take Afghanistan for granted after hailing the improvements they have made over the past four years.

Afghanistan have gone from strength to strength since then and possess the best white-ball bowler in the world in Rashid Khan. And despite the odds being stacked heavily in the favour of Australia for their World Cup opener, Finch is well aware of the potential banana skin that awaits his team in Bristol.

“Afghanistan have turned into a really world-class side at times, they’ve got some of the best bowlers in the world and their batting is improving all the time,” he said. “You can never take a side like that for granted and if you look back at 2015 we played them at the WACA, which was probably the furthest from their conditions you could probably get. They are a dangerous side, they are very dangerous, and we’ve seen around the world some of the performances their players are putting up in very strong domestic competitions. If you take your foot off you gas for a second they will hurt you and you still have to play at your absolute best to beat them. To see their growth in the last four years has been huge. Even winning their warm-up game against Pakistan, they played brilliantly. They bowled excellent, they batted excellent, and for the world game they have such a huge following of fans.”

“They have some huge marquee players that are so sought-after around the world. The cricket is growing quicker and quicker over there and it’s a great story. I was talking to their captain the other day and he was saying how passionate their fans are and how they have support all over. It’s huge for cricket, not just Afghanistan but for world cricket.”

 “It was a really tough series last time we played here, a 5-0 loss, but everyone is really enjoying each other’s success which is a huge part of it, especially building up to a World Cup,” he said. “There’s so much talk about selection and there are guys really pushing to get that last spot or last couple of spots, teams can go insular at times and start to look after your own performance. One thing we’re really conscious of and we’ve talked of quite a lot in the build up to the last couple of series is that as soon as you start playing for yourself it can go against you. If you can do everything you can for the team that’s looked favourably on and if you look back on the history of cricket, guys who have continually hung around as 12th man they get that extra tour. If they are doing everything that the team needs and then they get that opportunity. If you think back to the 2003 World Cup and Andy Bichel, he was just around all the time and got a chance. He played some really key roles in winning the tournament for Australia and that was a message that you do everything you can for the team and never put yourself before the team.”