At least this contest went the distance. After a series of truncated Tests the outcome of this isolated T20 match was in doubt until the penultimate ball. England, thanks to some inspired out-cricket in the closing overs – after some shabbier stuff earlier on – won by five runs. With the match in the balance the fielding was sure and bowling intelligent while there was a hint of panic in an Australia camp that contrived to lose five wickets for 16 runs in 14 balls towards the end of their chase.
Cardiff has seldom been a happy hunting ground for Australia. In Test cricket they drew when they should have won in 2009; they lost the crucial first match of the recent series here; and in 2005 they were humbled by Bangladesh.
Australian cricketers dream of playing at Lord’s or the Kia Oval but perhaps not at the Swalec Stadium and they will not take home many happy memories from their latest visit to Wales. Despite a silky-smooth 90 by Steve Smith, in his first match in charge as captain in all three formats, England kept their cool and prevailed.
Smith’s decision to bowl first looked especially canny after six overs when England were a paltry 27 for two. But then Moeen Ali and Eoin Morgan combined in a superb 135-run partnership, which highlighted the advantages of batting first. Both these knocks will have delighted the decision makers in England’s hierarchy.
Moeen did not play in the early-season white-ball matches against New Zealand; there was an understandable inclination to protect him for the trials ahead, especially as a bowler. But after an ebullient Ashes series he was recalled and given the responsibility of replacing Joe Root at No3. Moeen, we know, will bat wherever he is told. On this occasion he settled in nicely after Pat Cummins had dispatched Alex Hales and Jason Roy in his first over.
Meanwhile Morgan’s preparation for this match and the forthcoming 50-over games has been unorthodox. After a torrid time for Middlesex and a long conversation with Angus Fraser, his director of cricket at county level and an England selector Morgan took a month off from competitive cricket, a strategy that might have old-timers spluttering into their post-match beer. To use Morgan’s own phrase, he opted to “press the refresh button”.
That now looks to have been a very good idea. Morgan, after a little reconnaissance (which approximates to three dots in T20 cricket), struck the ball with awesome, wristy power. The boundaries are short at the Swalec and the outfield is currently lush (as they often say in these parts), which may explain why there were as many sixes (11) as fours in the England innings. Some of Morgan’s strokes, such as the flat-bat smash into the river Taff, do not even appear in modern coaching manuals. Unfortunately he barely has any time to press his refresh button again, since the next match at the Ageas Bowl on Thursday.
Smith hinted at egalitarian tendencies as a captain since he gave eight of his men a bowl and the eighth to be summoned was the leg-spinner Cameron Boyce, who was flown over specifically for this game. Boyce bowled six balls, which yielded 19 runs as Moeen explored the boundaries, and he was not required again.
The target of 183 was never impregnable despite the early loss of David Warner, caught at third man off David Willey, and Shane Watson, bowled by Steven Finn. Watson’s dismissal was not conventional. The ball took the bottom of his bat and bounced up towards the stumps whereupon Watson attempted to kick it away. Usually a cricket ball is magnetically attracted to Watson’s pads or boots but on this occasion there was no contact. So the ball dribbled on to the stumps.
Smith then combined with Glenn Maxwell and England could not part them for 11 overs. Smith led the way. One of his sixes clunked into the top deck of the pavilion, which is a very long way from the middle. For much of the time Maxwell was prepared to look on admiringly until brilliantly caught on the leg-side boundary by Ben Stokes from Moeen’s first ball.
Then, after Reece Topley, an impressive debutant, had snaffled his first international victim and Smith had been caught on the midwicket boundary off Willey, England seized their chance eagerly. Australia needed 11 runs off the last over to tie the match and prompt a super over. Stokes relished the responsibility, as did fielders on red alert. The Aussies will be glad to return to England.