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Pressure on Australia at women's Twenty20 Cricket World Cup

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — The face of a tormentor kept appearing in unlikely places while England captain Heather Knight was preparing for the ICC Women's Twenty20 World Cup. Knight's team was beaten in the Ashes last year in England, where Ellyse Perry played a pivotal part in Australia's lopsided series win.

A long-time fixture of the Australian team, Perry has a high-profile role in an extensive promotional campaign for a tournament that organizers hope will conclude with a world record crowd for a women's sports event. Her image seems to be everywhere, from TV to newspapers and billboards.

“I went for coffee in Sydney and saw Ellyse Perry’s face painted on the side of three different buses," Knight noted. Australia is hosting the women's T20 World Cup for the first time — it's the seventh edition — and is the favorite to win the title for the fifth time. That adds to the pressure on a home team led by Meg Lanning and is something other contenders such as England and India, led by Harmanpreet Kaur, want to exploit.

The final is set for March 8 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and there are predictions of a crowd exceeding 90,000 — on International Women's Day. To get to that, the Australians would likely have to reach the championship match and be performing well.

England won the 50-over World Cup on home soil in 2017 with a victory in the final against India, which upset defending champion Australia in the semifinals on the back of Kaur's unbeaten 171. The three teams were involved in a recent T20 tri-series to warm up for this World Cup, and Australia narrowly beat India in the final. But there were some nervous moments for the hosts, particularly at the top of the batting order. England and India have refreshed squads, while New Zealand, South Africa and the 2016 champion West Indies are capable of putting together winning streaks in international cricket's shortest format.

England's only win in the Ashes series — which includes a test, one-dayers and T20s — came after Australia had already secured the urn, and changes followed, including the hiring of Lisa Keightley as head coach.

“We learnt a hell of a lot from what was a tough summer,” Knight said during a pre-tournament news conference, where the 10 captains wore wide-brimmed Akubra hats at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. “That Ashes gave us a chance to reassess what we want to do. We’re really clear with how we want to play our cricket and that’s a result of the Ashes. Hopefully it will be a good thing for us that that happened."

The tournament opens with Australia against India on Friday in Sydney. The 15-strong India squad has an average age of just under 23 and contains four teenagers including 16-year-old opener Shafali Verma, who took on Perry during the recent tri-series.

Perry was the youngest player to debut in international cricket for Australia — at age 16 in 2007 — and has been involved in a boom time in the women's game. She also played soccer for Australia, including a women's World Cup, but it was the lure of a lucrative, full-time professional contract that swayed the star allrounder her to stick with cricket.

Kaur's young group is hoping a win will lead to a similar rise for the women's game in India, where cricket is the national sport and where the revenue generated drives the game globally. “After the 2017 World Cup we have seen many girls who want to become cricketers,” Kaur said. "If we win the World Cup, it will be very big for us."

Thailand is making its debut in an ICC global event, and the team is just hoping to make a mark. “People back home don’t know me, some people know cricket but it’s not on television. They will follow us on Instagram and Facebook and will know about our game in Australia," said captain Sornnarin Tippoch, a former softball player who didn't know the rules of cricket when she started playing at university.

One thing Sornnarin's squad brings to the tournament is the element of fun, with crowds and opposition teams teams enjoying their attitude in the warm-up games. The teenagers in the India squad have added an extra sense of enjoyment, too, with their penchant for dancing and singing.

“I think we’re the happiest team at the World Cup," seasoned batter Veda Krishnamurthy said in comments posted on the ICC's website, "although Thailand might give us some competition!”

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