Maxwell a crucial piece to Australia's World Cup jigsaw puzzle

Glenn Maxwell's successful return to Australia colours with the ball was a timely tonic for a team whose World Cup preparation had hit several glitches in the last few weeks - and an insight into a vital part of their gameplan.

Maxwell, who had not featured in any of the preceding matches in South Africa or India due to a combination of an ankle problem and a paternity leave, chimed in with a career-best 4 for 40 in Rajkot to help Australia end a run of five consecutive ODI defeats. It included a reflex return catch to remove Rohit Sharma, and an excellent delivery to take Shreyas Iyer's off stump to all but secure the win.

It was only Maxwell's second ODI since returning from the badly-broken leg he suffered last year. The impact of that is still being felt, and there remains a degree of uncertainty as to how he will cope with the workload during the World Cup - the packed schedule with a lot of travel could provide challenges - but there is little doubt that his presence in the side helps Australia in numerous ways.

If his bowling can consistently be as effective as it was in Rajkot, he could be a viable second spinner alongside Adam Zampa, which would allow Australia to play three their big-three quicks, provided they are comfortable with Pat Cummins or Mitchell Starc at No. 8.

An average of 47.71 may not suggest a bowler of huge pedigree, but Maxwell's offspin has improved significantly in recent years - to the extent that it had him on the brink of a Test recall. Had it not been for the broken leg, he would likely have featured in the series against India earlier this year too.

"What he brings to our team from a balance perspective is really, really important for us," Mitchell Marsh said after Australia's win in Rajkot. "There may be wickets where he's the third spinner through this World Cup. But just the ability for us to play the three quicks, a spinner and have Maxi who has the ability on the right wicket to bowl ten overs, think you see a lot of teams around the world have guys like Maxi; it gives you a lot of flexibility with the teams you can pick or the way you can structure your batting line-up."

Maxwell's batting will also be vital to Australia's chances. He was cleaned up by an excellent Jasprit Bumrah yorker in Rajkot, but a side with him coming in at No. 6 or 7 has a more daunting look to it, particularly if he can recapture the form he showed in 2020 and 2022.

There was a run of seven matches against England and Sri Lanka - albeit spread over a long period due to Australia's lack of ODIs during Covid-19 - where Maxwell hit a century and five fifties, often coming in at No. 7. Since then, his returns with the bat have dipped - an average of 15.25, and a strike rate of 91.04 in nine innings - but he remains a player capable of game-changing performances.

Australia's middle order needs to lift from the last few weeks. While the loss of Travis Head for at least part of the World Cup is a huge blow, the presence of David Warner, Marsh and Steven Smith offers a mixture of power and solidity at the top. But lower down, the output has been less convincing, with Marcus Stoinis' batting remaining a concern, Cameron Green struggling to find his touch, Alex Carey a sluggish starter, and Josh Inglis battling for opportunity.

Even in piling up 352 in Rajkot, the middle order struggled to cash in, with Maxwell, Green, Carey and Cummins making 44 off 61 balls, although Marsh did note the ball had become softer and trickier to hit.

Across the eight matches against South Africa and India this month, for positions five to eight, Australia averaged 21.20 with a strike rate of 94.78. That includes Marnus Labuschagne's concussion-sub effort of 80 not out in Bloemfontein, Carey's 99 in Centurion, and Sean Abbott's half-century in Indore which came in heavy defeats.

Among other World Cup nations who have played during September, only Sri Lanka and Pakistan average less from Nos. 5-8, although Australia's strike rate puts them fourth behind South Africa, Afghanistan and England.