England scrape home in nervy thriller
England’s lower order withstood a spirited Australian fightback to clinch the first ODI of the series.
England weathered various squally showers and the odd thunderstorm to claim the first of five ODIs against Australia at The Oval.
They will, though, be mightily relieved tonight. A game which had seemed in England’s grasp from the moment that claimed three wickets inside the first 11 overs of Australia’s innings had threatened to slip from their grasp as they themselves, cruising, lost three for 10 in the middle part of their run-chase.
But with England six down and still 51 shy, Moeen Ali – who backed up his three wickets with an important cameo to claim the Player of the Match award – and David Willey counter-attacked to take the match deep.
Moeen’s dismissal left England seven down with work still to do, but Willey kept his nerve to take the hosts to within one shot, and thereafter delivered the game’s defining moment with an imperious straight six down the ground and into the sightscreen.
Willey held the pose, Dhoni-style. This wasn’t quite Mumbai under lights in 2015; not yet at any rate. But England, still without a World Cup winner’s medal from five final appearances, know they are building a team capable of breaking that hoodoo next summer.
Australia’s problems stemmed from that misfiring start. They won the toss, and upon electing to bat, seemed intent on going toe-to-toe with England’s expansive top-order.
After the early wicket of Travis Head, driving loosely at Willey, Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh counter-punched effectively on a true, easy-paced pitch.
Eoin Morgan, who would later play the innings of the match, quickly turned to his spinners, and the game flipped on their introduction.
Adil Rashid has in recent years emerged as the most potent one-day bowler in this line-up and in cahoots with Moeen set about suffocating Australia’s batsmen.
It was Moeen who struck first, Finch aiming a wild swipe at a wide delivery to be caught behind square on the off-side.
Marsh was next, playing inside a floating turner to be clean bowled. And then it was Tim Paine’s turn, with an ill-conceived reverse sweep, CricViz later confirming that it was Paine’s 14th attempt at playing the shot in ODI cricket, and the third time he’s perished from it.
When Marcus Stoinis nicked a wide offering from Rashid to the keeper, Australia were five down inside 20 overs.
Glenn Maxwell offered some resistance with his first half-century in nine ODI knocks, but when he holed out on the boundary for a breezy 64-ball 62, any last lingering hopes of a competitive total went with him.
Between them, England’s spin twins would send down 70 dot balls and share five wickets.
At the halfway mark it appeared that England’s much-vaunted batting line-up would cruise to victory, and indeed it often looked as though they would.
England may have been skittish initially, and pegged back by the impressive Billy Stanlake, whose combination of extreme height, serious pace and healthy aggression will concern many more batting line-ups to come. But from the rocky plains of 39/3, Morgan and Joe Root proceeded to bat with immense calm and authority.
Their century partnership appeared to have sucked the life out of the contest, but when Morgan went suddenly for 69, caught behind slashing at a wide one from Andrew Tye, his dismissal precipitated a mini-collapse, as first Jos Buttler and then Root perished in the search for runs.
It brought Moeen and Willey together. The crowd, which had merrily assumed an England victory all day, were suddenly on their haunches, but the southpaws ducked, weaved and counter-jabbed to add 34 precious runs.
Finally, with three wickets still left, the stage was cleared for Willey to finish things in spectacular fashion. He didn’t disappoint.
Australia will know they badly misfired with the bat and were always playing catch-up from then on.
They will at least be heartened by the form of Stanlake and Tye, the latter showcasing all the skills that have made him so desired in T20 franchise cricket.
But with four matches to go in this series, they will know that their top order will need to find some collective form, and fast. Otherwise it could be a long fortnight in the old country.