Analysts, commentators, writers of match-previews, players of fantasy cricket – they all love head-to-head figures and, before every game, recite the relevant figures as though they contain all the mysteries of the universe.
Personally, I’ve never seen the point. Each match is a discrete event (and this is particularly true in a tournament, as opposed to a bilateral contest). Conditions differ, personnel changes, contexts change, so how does it matter what happened previously?
I’ve never been able to get my point of view across, though – when I try, I get drowned in a cacophony of statistics (and numbers aren’t my strong point anyway – economics scared me so much I dropped out of college).
Finally, I have my unanswerable argument: Before this game, England had won 10 of the last 11 matches between the two sides. Guess what happened when the two met at Lord’s today?
First Half: Michael Atherton was out there to call the toss, as were the captains of Australia and England. And there they stood, while first the lady anchor in the studio and then the gent went into rhapsodies about “the home of cricket” and “the biggest rivalry” and “the pressure” and “the atmosphere” and “the game we have all been waiting for…”
Rivalry is good for sport; it sells the tickets and has the sponsors queuing up. But I suspect that the hype, the hyperbole, inadvertently accumulates into a mountain of baggage weighing the players down and keeping them from giving of their best.
The first half of the game supports my thesis. England won the toss and, under overcast skies and on a green-tinged Lord’s wicket, opted to bowl first — in the process defying their own recent history, which tells that England lost on both occasions they opted to chase in this tournament.
When you make that choice, what you want is wickets up-front. And on this pitch, on this day, the way to get them was by bowling the fuller lengths that would test the two edges of the bat, with the challenge of adjusting to the famous Lord’s slope adding to the degree of difficulty.
Instead, what an uncharacteristically flat England produced in the first half of the Australian innings was a shambolic display. Opening bowlers Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer were on the shorter side with their first spells; the fielding was a putrid mix of misfields, fumbles that turned ones into twos, overthrows that ditto, edges just missed (and a little later, a missed stumping).
It was as if England, with the ball and in the field, were shackled by the chains of history -- the last time England defeated Australia in a World Cup was in 1992.
One stat that tells the story of squandered opportunity: Of the first 60 balls, 52 were missing the stumps (which basically meant the batsmen could leave on length); these provided five boundaries. Only eight were hitting — and of this, one was to full and resulted in the sixth boundary.
Australia cashed in. David Warner, notorious in this tournament for his sluggish starts, actually outscored Aaron Finch because the bowlers kept feeding his cuts and pulls. The first 60 deliveries included 41 dot balls, but they also included six fours in a score of 44.
The 123-run opening partnership took 136 balls, with both openers bringing up fifties. But the real worth of that association was in the mess it made of England’s planning. Woakes and Archer were neutralised; Mark Wood was taken to the cleaners (3-0-24-0 in his first spell); Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali were deployed much earlier than planned and England appeared to be taking a standing count.
And then the weight of expectations shifted onto Australia’s shoulders. Just as England’s bowlers expected to take wickets early and often and over-exerted, Australia’s batsmen sensed a mammoth score in the making — and tripped over their own ambition.
The catalogue of dismissals tells the story: Warner cutting Moeen to backward point without allowing for bounce; Usman Khawaja playing all over a blockhole delivery from Ben Stokes; Finch top-edging a pull down to fine leg; Glenn Maxwell guiding an upper cut to the keeper; Marcus Stoinis taking a second run his partner had absolutely no interest in; Smith trying for the untenanted acreage at midwicket and slicing to long on…
The partnership figures complete the story: 123 for the first wicket; 50 for the second; 12 for the third; 28th for the fourth; 15 for the fifth; 22nd for the sixth… As the chart graphically demonstrates, Australia had a fluent start, and then stalled all the way through the middle, and the constant bleed of wickets ensured that there couldn’t be a big late flourish at the death either. But the real story those numbers tell is of a batting side that created opportunity, and then succumbed to ambition.
What this collapse did — besides ensuring that Australia fell well short of the 320-plus score they had set themselves up for — was to rehabilitate the England bowling. Take the case of Mark Wood, as the most telling of several examples: His first spell went for 24 in three overs. When he was brought back mid-innings, his first over went for another 11 (4-0-35-0).
At that point, England was in trouble, with its usually reliable wicket-taker being taken to the cleaners. Glenn Maxwell, who with the bat seems determined to have a good time but not necessarily a long time, guided an innocuous bouncer outside off to the keeper — and Wood, with Australia unable to go after him thanks to the regular fall of wickets, managed decent figures of 9-0-59-1.
If Australia ended up with a sizeable total of 285/7 — way below the 320-plus that seemed on the cards at the halfway mark — it owed to a typically bustling 38 off 34 by Smith, whose batting position behind the painfully unimpressive Usman Khawaja is a travesty that could cost them big time in a crunch game, and a sparkling cameo of 38 not out off 27 by the talented Alex Carey.
Second Half: The first ten overs of the England innings was the exact antithesis to the similar phase of the Australian knock. The sequence:
Over #0.2: Jason Behrendorf, back in the side for Coulter-Nile, swung one across the right-handed James Vince. The ball hit the line of middle stump on a good length, straightened past the batsman’s attempted drive, and hit middle.
Over #3.3: Mitchell Starc tested Joe Root’s outside edge repeatedly with balls that swung or slanted away from the full length — and then swung one back in to nail the by-then tentative batsman in front of middle.
Over #5.5: Starc gave Eoin Morgan a brief, but fierce, working over as soon as he arrived. The first ball . The first ball Starc bowled to the England captain thumped into the batsman’s hip-bone. The next was a lovely outswinger that beat a parody of a drive. The next was quick and angling into the pads, hustling Morgan with pace. And then came the short ball, the extra pace and bounce forcing the top edge to deep fine leg.
Over #13.5: Behrendorf followed up a few full-length deliveries with the short, sharp bouncer outside off; Johnny Bairstow tried to pull it across to the leg side, was beaten by the extra bounce, and holed out to deep midwicket.
Those four wickets, which reduced England to 26 for 3 in the sixth over and to 53/4 in the 14th, tells many stories. The first relates to the bowling. England, in the powerplay, bowled 62% of its deliveries either back of length or short and only 38% on a good length or fuller — and Australia’s openers scored off the shorter length and defended to the few fuller deliveries. Against that, Australia’s bowlers in the same phase bowled 58% on the good or full lengths, and got two wickets; they bowled 42% on the shorter length but because the short ball was used as the surprise weapon, they got a wicket. England had the better bowling conditions; Australia used the new ball better.
The second story is about the batting of this newly-refurbished, hyper-aggressive England of which we have heard so much. The England of 2015 and earlier was characterized by the habit of crumbling under the first sign of pressure. The new version operates on the motto: Go hard. If you get into trouble, go even harder. Consider Vince’s head-in-air drive, Morgan’s panicky pull, Bairstow’s fetch from outside off — three wickets squandered to the theory that England can always hit itself out of any trouble it finds itself in.
The earlier England only had one gear — the first. This retooled England only has one gear — the seventh. Maybe Morgan and his men could benefit from considering that cricketing life does not always have to be about extremes. The Australian openers respected the conditions, the bowling, and the game; England kept going hard, irrespective. Sportsmen have this thing they say: If you don’t respect the game, it will bite you in the butt. England is now learning that lesson in instalments – chapter one was the June 21st game against Sri Lanka at Leeds; this game is chapter two.
For a while, it looked as if England had learned on the fly. Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes reined in their instinct to attack everything in sight; they settled down to play the bowling on merit; they were quick to pounce when opportunity afforded; and their combined circumspection produced a 5th wicket partnership of 71 off 81 balls that looked to be giving England a lifeline of sorts.
But old habits die hard. Marcus Stoinis with the ball doesn’t look like much; when the others are named Starc, Cummins and Behrendorf, the batting side tends to mark him out as natural prey. Stoinis makes up with smarts what he lacks in pace, though. Buttler got what looked like a juicy one on his hips and flicked at it; the extra bounce Stoinis occasionally generates meant the ball had more air than the batsman planned to give it and Usman Khawaja, racing around from midwicket to deep backward square, flirted with the boundary cushions and held a beauty.
While on that, another vital difference between the two sides: if England was sloppy, Australia were brilliant – in the ring they gave their bowlers dot ball sequences; in the outfield they were electric-heeled; and the catching was uniformly excellent from Cummins, Khawaja and a Maxwell/Finch relay on the long off fence. Smith was the standout even in this outfit, particularly fielding at either short cover or short midwicket; he missed two direct hits – but a lesser fielder would never have fielded those strokes in the first place.
The revelation was Ben Stokes. England all-rounders tend to be storm-centers. There are as many scandalous off-field stories of Ian Botham as there are on-field heroics; there were times when it seemed to need an entire man management team to handle Freddie Flintoff. Ben Stokes hasn’t quite touched such Olympian heights in his off-field antics – but on the field, he is worth the ticket price.
In the Australian innings, when the higher rated Archer went for 6.2 runs per over and Wood for 6.5, Stokes alone kept his head, bowled to the conditions, and steadied the middle overs, going at just 4.8 runs per over. (Oh, and in the field he seems to have as many arms as an octopus).
With the bat, he absorbed the loss of star partners like Bairstow and Buttler, battled through what appears to be a bad cramp or suchlike discomfort, rolled the strike over, attacked judiciously, taking an especial liking to the likes of Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins, and seemed capable of single-handedly taking England across the line.
It took a champion to end his fighting knock – Mitchell Starc, brought back when the Woakes-Stokes partnership crossed the 50-run mark and threatened big things, produced the best yorker of the World Cup thus far. Bowled at top pace, starting on a line just outside fourth stump, the ball swung in very late onto the base of off stump – a ball good enough to do for any batsman, any time. And that was pretty much that – 95 runs were needed from the last 60 deliveries, and well though Woakes played, Rashid, Archer and Wood weren’t quite enough firepower to overcome an Australian attack led by Starc and Behrendorf (who came into the eleven for Coulter-Nile and ended with a five-for) once Woakes holed out.
The win nails Australia’s semifinal berth – and with Starc in red hot form leading their attack, are now vying for the favorites tag. And the defeat has pushed England further behind the eight ball.
The hosts, prohibitive favorites at the start of the tournament, are now fighting for survival. With four wins and three losses in seven games, England have eight points on the board – but will now need to beat India and New Zealand to be sure of safe passage. And both teams will have noted that this refurbished England, particularly when chasing, is quite as prone to collapsing as the previous version was.
The hosts might well end up ruing the over-confidence that cost them the June 21 game against Sri Lanka.