England won the first one-day international against Australia by three wickets. But they did so messily, in a manner hardly befitting the side ranked No 1 in the world. Had they lost this match England would have lost their position at the top of the ICC’s one-day perch and no one could have quibbled about that. The Australians were tigerish in the field but they were defending an inadequate total. Too often England’s batsmen were wanton as if taking the win for granted. It may be time for a word from those in charge – an “honest discussion” is the modern description.
The Australians behaved impeccably but they did not bat very well. With the exception of Glenn Maxwell their batsmen succumbed meekly against the bowling attack hammered by the Scots four days ago. England’s spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, did most of the damage, sharing five wickets between them as Australia were bowled out for 214.
That total could have been worse. In fact it was one more run than Australia scored in arguably the greatest 50 over game of all, the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup at Edgbaston when the match was tied, which allowed Steve Waugh’s side to progress to the final rather than South Africa . On that occasion the bowlers who prevailed in a low-scoring match were Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald and Shane Warne.
That calibre of bowler was not on view here and the game has changed a lot since then. A total of 214 has become a paltry one in 50-over cricket, one which makes thousands of punters feel slightly betrayed at the absence of a contest. And it appears that for too many of England’s batsmen it is not a target that warrants serious consideration. Only Joe Root and Eoin Morgan appeared to take the contrary view that this was a task, however menial, that required some application.
The ticket touts were out in force outside the Oval’s tube station but the value for money was better in Edinburgh. Most of the fans were in place in time for the crucial handshakes just before the start of play. At least the players did not hang around too long when performing this gesture. It did not take 12 seconds for all of them to get this odd ritual out of the way.
Once the game started David Willey did not have to work too hard for the initial breakthrough. A very wide swinging half-volley was edged by Travis Head and the ball ballooned gently to Jonny Bairstow at first slip. Thereafter 40 easy runs were crunched against the pacemen and there was the expectation of a runfest from Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh. Both looked in fine fettle until the introduction of Moeen.
Morgan gave his off-spinner the ninth over, which can be a teaser for the batsmen. It was a worthwhile ploy. In Moeen’s first over Finch was trying to drive with an inside out swing of the bat in pursuit of a boundary but the outcome was only a gentle catch to backward point. Marsh soon fell in a more classical manner as the ball turned sufficiently to beat his outside edge.
Moeen’s third wicket was the Australian captain, Tim Paine. The bowler removed his first slip so to the next delivery Paine opted to reverse sweep; instead of mischievously trickling through the vacant slip area the ball ended up in the hands of Mark Wood at backward point. So Australia were stumbling at 70 for four, which soon became 90 for five when Marcus Stoinis was caught behind, trying to cut a delivery from Rashid, who had embarked on one of his more frugal spells for England.
Maxwell, with discreet support from Ashton Agar, forged a minor recovery, the pair adding 84 in 17 overs. Even Maxwell recognised a grave situation and reined himself in, though he did treat himself to 14 runs from Moeen’s final over, hitting an effortless six over mid-off with the ease of a golfer who had decided to give the ball a hint of fade. But on 62 he was caught on the square-leg boundary by Bairstow and the chances of Australia posting a decent target disappeared.
The blasters at the top of the order had all disappeared within eight overs when England took to the crease. Jason Roy was bowled off the inside edge by the second delivery he faced from the beanpole Billy Stanlake; Alex Hales was lbw to Michael Neser. Bairstow hit six boundaries, five of them racing from the middle of his bat to confirm that he is in princely form but he could not capitalise. A pull shot fizzed from his bat straight into the hands of Head on the rope at square-leg.
Morgan and Root managed to restore the situation with no apparent difficulty, with the white-ball captain scoring faster and striking the boundaries. Meanwhile Root was content to bat with restraint, a rare event in this England side. Then there was another surprising flurry of wickets. Morgan was caught behind off the cunning Andrew Tye, whose pace variations caused considerable confusion.
Jos Buttler’s mind seemed elsewhere; he was off the mark with a lofted drive; a top-edged catch was dropped by Paine and then he was duped by Tye’s knuckle ball and caught at mid-on. In the next over Root was caught behind off Stanlake with 52 runs still required. Moeen holed out to square leg. But Willey, forsaking the notion of getting ’em in singles, swatted enough boundaries to see a relieved England camp home.