London: England 218 for 7 (Morgan 69, Root 50) beat Australia 214 (Maxwell 62, Plunkett 3-42 Moeen 3-43) by three wickets.They were handing out sandpaper boundary placards on the way up from Vauxhall Tube Station, but in the end, nothing could smooth away the rough edges in Australia’s new-look batting line-up. Despite their rookie bowling attack mounting a spirited defence of a substandard target of 215, England overcame a double dose of jitters to seal a three-wicket victory in the first ODI at The Kia Oval.
Most of the pre-series focus had, rightly, been on the absence of Australia’s finest two batsmen, David Warner and Steven Smith, and, as might have been expected, they struggled to mitigate for that void in class. After winning the toss on a bright afternoon in South London, Australia mustered 214 in 47 overs, the sort of slow-death innings that exposed their shortcomings more comprehensively than a full-on batting collapse could have done.
Nevertheless, England aren’t without a few notable embarrassments in their (very) recent history, and only days after failing to close out a chase of 372 to hand Scotland a famous victory, they came improbably close to stumbling in pursuit of a target of barely half that height. The beanpole seamer Billy Stanlake was the catalyst for Australia’s defiance, bowling Jason Roy second-ball for a duck as England slipped to 38 for 3 at the top of their innings, before Andrew Tye and his illegible T20 variations came to the fore in the tense closing stages.
In the end it was left to David Willey to haul England over the line with an improbably grindy knock of 35 from 41 balls, with Liam Plunkett unbowed for the second match running on 3. But even then, England still won with a handsome 36 deliveries to spare, which spoke to the gulf in batting quality more eloquently than the official margin of victory.
That was largely a testament to the elder-statesman class of Joe Rootand Eoin Morgan. Their fourth-wicket stand of 115 in 21 overs managed to combine defensive accumulation with calculated aggression in a manner that Australia’s own middle order had been unable to replicate. Without such knowhow to rescue their innings, England really would have been in the soup. But then again, that is the entire point of experience.
Before the start of play, Tim Paine had seemed visibly excited at the prospect of ending all the talk of sledging and cheating, and getting back to the day job. But, by the innings break, the captain who had instigated a pre-match handshake with his opponents to mark the start of a new era for his team might have been wondering if he was really that keen to starting talking about actual cricket once again.
The early exchanges of Australia’s innings amounted to a vivisection of the tourists’ anxieties in overseas conditions. Willey’s prodigious new-ball swing accounted for Travis Head via a flat-footed slash to slip from his second delivery, before Moeen Ali came whirling through the middle overs, putting his miserable winter behind him with single-spell figures of 10-1-43-3 that might have been lifted straight out of the 1997 Texaco Trophy.
Four balls into Moeen’s spell, Aaron Finch gave himself room outside off to pick out short third man with an ambitious wipe. Two balls into his second over, Shaun Marsh stayed leg-side of a well-flighted tweaker, a la Ben Duckett in Bangladesh, and lost his off stump for 24. And when Paine himself, desperate to set a tempo, any tempo, offered catching practice to short third man with a muffed reverse sweep, Moeen’s figures were 3 for 11 in 4.1 overs.
After that, it was a given that he’d bowl his spell straight through. Adil Rashid kept him company for a six-over burst of his own, in which time he scalped Marcus Stoinis for 22, before Glenn Maxwell rode to the rescue of his team’s dignity, if not the overall match situation. A restorative 84-run stand for the sixth wicket ended when Plunkett induced a top-edged a pull to deep square leg, and when Ashton Agar misread the length of a Rashid legbreak to be plumb lbw for 40, the tail were rounded up meekly.
But there was nothing meek about the response of Stanlake in particular. In the absence of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, this was his chance to demonstrate the timeless virtues of hitting a good length at 90mph. Roy survived one ball before losing the top of his off stump to a beautiful nipbacker, and when the debutant Michael Neser made it two wicket-maidens in the space of four overs by pinning Alex Hales on leg stump, the game was officially afoot.
Jonny Bairstow, with three ODI hundreds in as many innings, once again looked a different class in easing to 28 from 22 balls with six outstanding boundaries. But then he nailed a pull straight into the hands of the lone man at square leg to give Kane Richardson his breakthrough, and England faced a test of their ego at 38 for 3.
But Root and Morgan swallowed their pride and ate up the overs with deft sweeps, well-placed drives and sharp judgement of the quick singles. By the 29th over, they were 153 for 3 and cruising; three overs later, they’d lost both of their set batsman plus the dangerous Jos Buttler as well, who may be in some of the best form of his life, but today read Tye’s knuckle ball as if it was a Jaipur railway timetable. He had already been dropped off Stanlake – a swirling chance to Paine behind the stumps, who spilled it as his elbows hit the ground – when he scuffed a drive to mid-off.
Moeen, determined to carry on playing his way despite criticism of his dismissal at the Grange, looked to have the chase in hand when he holed out to deep midwicket to give Neser his second and ignite that debate all over again. But in the end, he’d already done enough with the ball to ensure that England’s wobbles would not be terminal.