It seemed the sort of match when it was safe for the viewer to pop out to the kitchen for a cup of tea without missing anything crucial. At an empty, noisy stadium in which the music system lurched into action after every boundary the old firm of Aaron Finch and David Warner went about their business as if they had been playing regular cricket for the past few months.
They compiled a clinical opening partnership of 98. Given Australia’s target was a modest 163 that should have decided the game without any further ado. Then in the time it takes for a kettle to boil Australia contrived to lose four wickets for nine runs in 14 deliveries.
Somehow from a position of near invincibility for Australia the game was in the balance. When Ashton Agar was run out by a millimetre or two in Chris Jordan’s excellent penultimate over Australia needed 15 for victory from the final one, which was bowled by Tom Curran. Marcus Stoinis hit the second delivery for six over extra-cover; four runs were needed from the final delivery to tie the match; Stoinis managed only two and a stunning two-run victory had been conjured from nowhere.
Eoin Morgan was of course calm in victory as if it was not a massive surprise; he was full of praise for Curran who had the dubious privilege of bowling the final over. “The bowlers really came good in the last eight overs. It’s always difficult coming in, under lights, pressure on, on a slow wicket. Tom Curran followed on from a fantastic winter. It’s great to see him calm in execution in the last few overs as well as Chris Jordan who also took on that responsibility in the winter. We did not bat particularly well but our bowlers bailed us out.”
Morgan knew he did not have enough runs. Initially he tested the openers with all-out pace as Jofra Archer and Mark Wood shared the new ball. Both exceeded 90mph frequently but that did not seem to deter Australia; after three overs they had 31 on the board.
Adil Rashid was introduced as soon as the powerplay was over and bowled an encouraging first over beating the bat twice but in his second Finch opened his shoulders and the ball disappeared into the redundant bucket seats.
England had to wait until the 11th over for their first wicket when Finch drove to mid-off but this hardly seemed to hinder their chase. Steve Smith, anticipating short deliveries from Wood, went on the back foot and pulled his first two balls for four. Soon he was launching a ball from Moeen Ali deep into the stands. Two noble England fielders took an age to find it. Then Rashid ended Smith’s little cameo via a top edge and Glenn Maxwell smashed a drive straight to cover. Archer returned to bowl Warner; Wood bowled Alex Carey and the game was transformed.
It was a tough game for any losing captain. Finch began with a rare act for an Australia captain in England in recent years by winning the toss and having a bowl. He explained the idea was to start the tour together out on the field and England have often declared their preference for chasing – except in the closing stages of a World Cup. For a while this did not look a terribly good idea because Jos Buttler was on song in the opening overs.
The ploy of tossing the ball to the left-arm spinner Agar for the second over did not work so well as Buttler straight drove two sixes into the stands just below the players’ hotel rooms. He lost Jonny Bairstow caught by Mitchell Starc, who was unusually stationed in a deep slip position.
England reached their fifty in the sixth over and Buttler had contributed 39. However Australia averted the avalanche cleverly and the deceleration was triggered by their spinners. Agar had Buttler caught at deep mid-wicket and this gave Finch’s team a lift.
While Dawid Malan looked on at the non-striker’s end Tom Banton sliced a drive against Agar while Morgan and Moeen attempted ambitious shots against Maxwell; Curran, who may have been surprised to end up batting at No 7, struggled before holing out against Kane Richardson.
Given the lack of support Malan’s innings of 66 off 43 balls was very impressive and at least gave England a chance. This was his eighth score in excess of 50 in 14 matches, which takes some doing in this format. He is becoming increasingly tricky to leave out of the best XI.
Malan cover-drove powerfully and struck a couple of clinical sixes off the final over from Adam Zampa, who yielded 47 from his four overs. In hindsight Finch did not need Zampa to bowl his full quota so that may have been a mistake. But when Australia were 124 for one that did not seem to make much difference. The contest resumes at 2.15pm on Sunday. Forget about the tea.