“Cricket,” said Oscar Wilde, who was clearly no fan, “requires one to assume such indecent postures.”
It’s a good thing Wilde died 89 years before Steve Smith was born – the sight of a batsman who, when settling in to face a ball, acts as if a colony of red ants had invaded his clothes might have induced apoplexy in the Irish poet/playwright.
On an Edgbaston pitch on which it was harder to get in than to stay in Smith, restored finally to his optimal number three position, walked in to face the eighth ball of the innings, and walked back after shepherding a patchy Australian innings through 46 fraught overs. In that time, he steered two partnerships of value.
The first, of 103 for the fourth wicket with Alex Carey after Australia were reduced to 14/3 in the 7th over, stanched Australia’s bleeding and hauled the team back into a semblance of respectability. And the second, of 51 for the eighth wicket with Mitchell Starc, raised faint hopes of a competitive total.
Carey, deservedly promoted to number five, was bloodied by a vicious lifter off length from Jofra Archer in the 8th over – the ball smacked into the grille, knocked the helmet off the batsman’s head, and broke open a cut on his chin.
Carey retained sufficient presence of mind to catch his helmet as it was toppling onto the stumps, and showed remarkable composure to come back from that blow and bat in his usual fashion – easy in defense, elegant particularly when driving off the front foot through the covers, always with one eye open for opportunities to knock the ball into the gaps and roll the strike over.
Starc played the way his batting betters should have – each ball on merit, defending those that deserved it and hitting hard, mostly to his favored leg side, when opportunity afforded.
A commonality in both partnerships was that they came as Band Aid after periods of play where wickets fell like dominoes. With the first ball of the second over, Jofra Archer produced a full length in-swinger onto Aaron Finch’s pads and pinned him in front – a classic example of how you first plan the work, then work the plan. Finch, in common with many batsmen, tends early on to stick his front foot across and well in front, a sucker for the ball on the pads because the bat has no time to come around.
In the third over, Chris Woakes used the fuller length on the angle across David Warner; the pace and extra bounce startled Warner into a hurried fend off his fourth stump to slip. Peter Handscomb, fresh off the plane, batted as if still in the throes of jet lag; Archer and Woakes repeatedly turned him inside out with pace and movement before Woakes ended his misery with one that nipped back off length through the gap to hit top of middle.
Smith and Carey stopped the opening bowlers from bursting through, weathered a combined first spell from Archer and Woakes that read 11-1-27-3, including 50 dot balls in the 66 they sent down, and gradually began milking the lesser bowlers.
The first 50 of the innings took all of 92 balls; the second a mere 54. Both batsmen were set, and the classic Aussie fightback seemed underway. Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett and Ben Stokes were all going at 5 RPO or better; Adil Rashid was faring as badly, with Carey in particular reading him easily out of the hand.
Rashid’s first four overs went for 29; the Smith-Carey partnership crossed the 100-run mark, and England was on the back foot when Carey played that one shot too many, dancing down to flick Rashid straight to deep midwicket – the only deep fielder in front on the leg side.
That gift-wrapped wicket triggered the next landslide. Marcus Stoinis, who through this tournament has sleep-walked to the wicket with the hangdog air of someone whose dog had eaten his homework, lasted three balls, then misread a Rashid googly so completely that his bat was a foot away from the line when the ball hit his pad.
Glenn Maxwell produced his usual guest appearance. Eoin Morgan brought Archer back. The bowler produced a high bouncer as a warning to the batsman, and followed up with the slower knuckle-ball variant which Maxwell tamely popped up to mid-off. Shortly thereafter, Pat Cummins clinically guided a straight ball from Rashid from the fifth stump line to the sole slip.
Smith and Starc then dragged the Australian innings back from the brink with a measured partnership. Cue dominoes, round three: Smith dribbled one off edge and pad towards keeper Jos Buttler, Starc came racing down to the danger end, Buttler whipped off his glove, picked up and threw down Smith at the bowler’s end to end a calculated knock of 85 (119 balls) that, among other things, underlined the idiocy of batting him at four purely in order to accommodate Usman Khawaja.
Off the very next ball, Starc slashed at a short delivery and nicked off and shortly after, Wood, who had been underwhelming all day, produced a yorker to Behrendorff. The innings ended as it began. In the space of 12 deliveries, Australia lost three wickets for five runs, sliding from 217/7 at the end of 47 to 223 at the end of 49 overs.
For England, the brilliance of Woakes and Archer – 18-0-52-5 – made up for the fairly anodyne efforts of Stokes, Wood, Plunkett and Rashid.
A measure of how self-destructive the Australian batting was: In the four previous games at Edgbaston, spinners managed a total of six wickets (including one to Kane Williamson in the game against Pakistan). And on this ground, India’s vaunted spin twins went for 160 runs in 20 overs against England in the league stage. Here, Rashid ended with 10-0-54-3 without ever looking anything under than what he currently is: a bowler who, thanks to his shoulder injury, uses his variations very sparingly and therefore reduces himself to a one-note bowler.
It was not that the pitch held demons – Australia, with the honorable exception of Smith, Carey and to an extent, Starc, failed to show up with the bat. All that remained was for them to be taken behind the woodshed for the punishment their performance merited – and Jason Roy, inevitably, was the one to wield the big stick.
Roy pulled the trigger in the 4th over, which he began by slapping Starc through the covers for four and ended with another crunching cover drive to the boundary. With Jonny Bairstow, as always, batting in his slipstream, Roy then made a statement in the sixth over. The fifth ball, from Starc, was not bad at all – fast, swinging in from off to a middle and leg line on length. Roy casually flipped it off his pads like a master chef flips an omelet off a well-greased skillet.
When Nathan Lyon was brought on in the 11th, Roy planted his front foot well down the track and smacked the spinner back over his head for a straight six off the very first ball, and four balls later stayed back and dismissively cut him through point. When Starc was brought back in the 15th over, Roy blasted him downtown for four, then played an inside out forehand drive through the covers for another boundary to get to 53 off 50 with seven fours and two sixes.
Somewhere along the way Bairstow, as is becoming a habit with him, crumpled to the ground with some problem with groin or thigh or hip or other body part, got some on-field running repairs, decided there was no percentage in running singles, and began backing eye and muscle. Long story short, Finch was reduced to trying an over of Steve Smith’s alleged leg spin; Roy contemptuously smacked the third ball over long on, then the next straight back, and the fifth ball even straighter, harder, longer. 53 in 50 at the end of 15 overs, 73 off 56 at the end of 16 (Bairstow at that point had ambled along to 34 off 41). So much for the theory that chasing in a death match, even when the target is low, brings its own pressure.
Starc got consolation, if you can call it that, by nailing Bairstow in front in the 18th over, but by then the openers had taken the score to 124 and the game was effectively over as a contest (100 needed at that point off 196 deliveries). Bairstow wasted a review on what was always going to be an ‘umpire’s call’ at best, and that waste of a DRS was to ramify later.
The wicket took Starc to the top of the list of bowlers with most wickets in a World Cup. The last two balls of the same over resulted in fours, one an inadvertent fend by Joe Root to fine leg, the next a cracking square drive behind point -- a commentary on the kind of day Australia was having.
What six Australian bowlers couldn’t do, umpire Kumar Dharmasena accomplished when he gave Roy out caught behind trying to hook Cummins. There was daylight between bat and ball; a disgusted Roy protested vehemently – for which he will likely be disciplined – but that wasted DRS now extracted a price and he had to walk off just when a century seemed his for the taking.
77 runs were needed from 180 deliveries at that point. Joe Root, fluent as always and Eoin Morgan, grimly hanging on in the face of a short-ball barrage before opening out against spin, used up 73 of those to walk the dog home. And, in the process, put England in a Cup final for the first time since March 25, 1992.
This game had none of the tension, the ebbs and the flows, of the first semifinal between New Zealand and India -- but there were unmissable similarities.
India paid a bitter price for over-reliance on the top three and its tournament-long neglect of the need for a strong middle order. It was Australia’s turn today to learn that lesson, pay that price.
Openers Finch and Warner, who have contributed 45% of the team’s runs, managed just nine between them in the crunch game. When Steve Smith needed one partner to help him take the game deep, a middle order manned by Handscomb, Stoinis and Maxwell scored a grand total of 26.
It just goes to show that faults that can be camouflaged in a league will crack wide open in the knock-out phase.