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Warner OK for Australia's World Cup opener vs Afghanistan

BRISTOL, England (AP) — For more than a year the overwhelming emphasis of news about David Warner revolved around him not playing for Australia. After such a relentless focus on his time in the international cricket wilderness, Warner wasn't likely to let something as mundane as muscle soreness prevent him from returning for Australia's opening World Cup match against Afghanistan.

Captain Aaron Finch has confirmed Warner is fit for Saturday's game in Bristol, and that means the opening combination that helped carry Australia to victory in the 2015 Cricket World Cup will reunite to kick off the title defense.

"David is fine," Finch told a news conference on Friday, dispelling any concern about Warner's upper leg strain. "He will play tomorrow, no doubt about that." Finch was elevated to lead the Australia one-day international squad after Warner and ex-captain Steve Smith were each banned for 12 months for their parts in a ball-tampering scandal in March last year.

The ex-captain and vice-captain accepted the harshest bans ever meted out for the offense — Warner reportedly for helping devise the clumsy scheme that involved his teammate Cameron Bancroft scratching the leather ball with sandpaper; Smith for not doing enough to stop it — so that they'd have a chance to again represent Australia.

They've both been reintegrated into the squad and scored runs in a string of unofficial warmup games. Now for the real deal, albeit starting against the lowest-ranked and least experienced team in the tournament.

Their return likely means Usman Khawaja, who was promoted to open with Finch in Warner's absence and was pivotal in helping turn around Australia's ODI fortunes in recent series wins against India and Pakistan, bats at No. 3. Smith, who was the premier batsman in test cricket before his suspension, should slot in at No. 4. Shaun Marsh is also in top-order calculations.

"Dave and I have had a great partnership over the years. That was a pretty key part of our 2015 World Cup win," Finch said when asked about the batting order. "Whichever way we decided to go with that, it didn't faze me.

"We've got some great options there and we'll sit down this afternoon and nut that out." Now a team that until a few months ago was struggling to put together consecutive wins is comparatively spoilt for choice, leaving a decision on the starting XI until game day.

The bowling attack will likely be led by Mitchell Starc, who won the award for player of the 2015 World Cup, and Pat Cummins. Adam Zampa is almost certain to start, and there's speculation he could even bowl at the start of the innings after the early success of South Africa legspinner Imran Tahir against England in the opening match on Thursday.

While Australia is on a roll — winning eight consecutive ODIs, including a 3-2 series win over No. 2-ranked India and a 5-0 sweep of Pakistan, then winning three warmup games in England — Afghanistan has had a stop-start preparation.

A narrow win over Pakistan in a warmup game in Bristol was followed by a heavy defeat to top-ranked England, which is favored to win the World Cup on home soil. On paper it's a mismatch, with the Afghan cricketers given little chance of beating the five-time World Cup winners. But Finch has noted the vast improvement in the Afghanistan team, particularly the spin bowlers, since the last World Cup.

"They are a dangerous side, very dangerous," Finch said. "If you take your foot off the gas for a second, they will hurt you." Afghanistan won a qualifying tournament to determine the last two places at the World Cup, beating the West Indies in the final to secure a spot ahead of the more established teams Zimbabwe, Ireland and Scotland.

At the Asian Cup last year, the Afghans had a tie with India and a win over Sri Lanka. Highly rated spinners Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeebur Rehman could be the key for Afghanistan if they can get early wickets and tie down batters desperate to get quick runs on the small grounds in England.

Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib said the win here against Pakistan in favorable conditions showed "anything can happen." "If we have this kind of wicket, maybe every and each team will be in trouble," he said. "I'm full of confidence and I believe in my team."

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