The fine-margins of sport are endlessly fascinating, and they were given another wonderful airing today in England’s three wicket victory over Australia in Cardiff.
At 144-6, if England had collapsed and lost, consigning them to a series defeat, Ashley Giles’s strategy of extra batting depth at the expense of greater bowling balance could have been further criticised by media and fans alike. However, as it was England’s victory today was perhaps the perfect riposte to the critiques surrounding Giles’ team over the past fortnight.
England’s bowling attack, widely considered to be a bowler-light, restricted Australia to 227 all out, and at 124-5 it could’ve been even fewer. Then, after England’s three stand-out names in the top order, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Joe Root all fell to consecutive deliveries from Clint McKay. The inexperienced Michael Carberry and the middle and lower order, hauled England back into the match, then over the finish line.
Not only did a largely second-string England team beat a near full-strength Australian one, but every issue of contention surrounding England’s team was vindicated—at least for now.
With England 144-6 in the run chase, Giles will feel thoroughly justified in his faith in Ben Stokes, who played an admittedly second hand, but undoubtedly important role in a pivotal seventh wicket partnership with Jos Buttler. This success with the bat added to a strong performance with the ball in which he picked up 1-42. His bowling, as in Manchester, was probing and hostile, and although he continues to bowl the occasional loose delivery, it was an impressive showing from a man widely considered as a batting all-rounder.
Another growing issue coming into today’s fixture was the form of Carberry who was under increasing pressure having scored just 10, four and one in his three innings previously. But today he played a responsible hand after McKay’s hat-trick saw England’s top order reduced to rubble at 8-3. And although he struggled for timing initially, and at one point appeared to give into his building frustration with an ugly heave off McKay that could’ve flown to a fielder (sport’s fine margins), his innings grew in fluency as it went on. His 63 runs were not the headline-grabber, but were certainly vital in giving England a chance at making a late dash for the target.
That late-dash will indeed be the story of the day. The silent factor of England’s large-scale rest and rotation for this series is the chance it offers fringe players to win matches for England, and Jos Buttler was the man to do that today. His 65 not out off just 48 balls was another display of the enormous talent he possesses, and was in innings of such poise and vivacity that it drew comparisons with AB de Villiers.
It was also a good day for Eoin Morgan who held the run-chase together with his third 50 in four matches as England captain, who also captained intuitively and intelligently. His decision to bowl Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin for extended spells at the beginning of Australia’s innings proved a master-stroke when Finn, returning to the attack in the thirteenth over, trapped Michael Clarke lbw.
On a spicy pitch, Finn and Rankin were superb with the new balls. So much so that it was easy to forget that England’s front-line pacemen, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, are being rested for this series. It’s worth also bearing in mind that the 2015 World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand places an extra emphasis on uncovering fast bowling depth, thus the strong performances of Finn and Rankin here are all the more encouraging.
Yet again, Ravi Bopara was frugal with the ball, conceding just 45 in his ten overs. While Australia repeated their tactic of taking the attack to James Tredwell, which although reaped a healthy 6.36 runs an over from him, lost them three wickets. What’s more, the continuation of Australia’s plan to attack Tredwell was a subtle acknowledgement of the bowling qualities of Stokes and Bopara.
But it should be noted that England were lucky with a couple of DRS decisions (sport’s fine margins) and such a slender margin of victory, carried largely on the back of an outstanding individual innings by Buttler, should not totally mask some of the flaws exposed today—most notably the continuing struggles of Trott—nor should it totally absolve Giles’ strategy from future examination and critique. This is only one win after all.
However, in an experiment that has only got one more match to run, a worst case scenario of a 2-1 series defeat is far from a disaster, and a 2-1 series victory would be a resounding success. England could quite easily have lost today, but they didn’t, and Ashley Giles, although he won’t admit it, will feel as relieved as he will feel vindicated.