Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell provided overdue contributions in the middle order to help Steven Smith guide Australia into the triangular series final with a six-wicket win over the West Indies at Bridgetown in Barbados.
Interim coach Justin Langer had been eager to see how his team responded under the pressure of possible tournament elimination, and Marlon Samuels’ fine hundred in partnership with Denesh Ramdin ensured Australia’s batsmen had little margin for error at Kensington Oval.
However, Smith produced the workmanlike innings of a leader and was able to coax Marsh into one of his best and most complete international innings, albeit on a surface that bore closer resemblance to Australian climes than any other in this series. Maxwell then came in with the game still in the balance – Australia needed 62 off 50 balls – and responded with a starburst of shots that will help his own sense of esteem enormously after a series in which he was dropped for two matches.
Even so, the Australians will still want to improve their fielding and bowling, two areas that were found wanting in the afternoon. On the fastest pitch of the tournament so far, three early wickets to the new ball gave Australia a fine start after Smith sent West Indies in. However Samuels found a willing ally in Ramdin and the pair put on 192 together, the best fourth wicket stand in all ODIs between the two teams.
After Samuels went on to his first ODI hundred against Australia, late-innings hitting left the visitors to question their choice of bowling first. The selectors again ignored spin, and another indifferent fielding display was emphasised by Matthew Wade dropping Samuels on 65.
Early on it appeared that the pace in the pitch would be ideal for Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja to set up Australia’s chase, but both were to be hurried up by deliveries skidding through and out in the teens. Shannon Gabriel, the debutant, generated significant pace from his muscular action, though his impact was offset by the withdrawal of Jason Holder due to injury after two overs.
Smith and George Bailey sought to stabilise the innings, conscious there was little in-form batting beneath them. They did well for a time, but Bailey was uncomfortable against the turn and lift gained by Sulieman Benn – amid a selection of loose balls – and skied a catch with 184 still required.
The Australians elected to send Marsh in ahead of Maxwell, and the gambit paid off richly. Marsh enjoyed the extra pace in the pitch and grew nicely into his innings in Smith’s company, using some of the cross bat shots he had learned at his home ground at the WACA in Perth. With Smith working the ball around sensibly they kept the target in sight, and were able to generate the odd piece of slipshod West Indian fielding.
In the end, the efforts to stretch the fielders cost Smith his wicket as he was comfortably run out when the target was looming within sight. His exit though served a useful purpose by allowing Maxwell to enter the fray. Earlier in the tournament he had looked completely at sea on slow Guyana surfaces, but now got past a nervy first few deliveries to accelerate in thrilling style.
Though these closing passages served mainly to change the margin of victory rather than preventing defeat, Maxwell’s fireworks – including one audacious switch-punch six off the spin of Sunil Narine – will make a major difference to his confidence heading into the final and beyond. Marsh, too, will benefit from a fine innings that showed the kind of maturity the selectors have been hoping to see from him for quite some time.
On a fine day in Bridgetown, West Indies replaced Jerome Taylor with Gabriel, while Australia named the same XI chosen for the washed-out encounter with South Africa. This meant that the visitors again ignored the spin of Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon, while the hosts went in with the dual spin of Narine and Sulieman Benn.
Starc had missed the previous encounter with the West Indies, and he immediately found pace and bounce to his liking. It was too much for Johnson Charles, who edged a fast, full delivery in the very first over, and Andre Fletcher fared little better as he groped at a succession of balls whirring across him.
Hazlewood also generated plenty of lift, and it was with one such delivery that ended a promising Darren Bravo innings as Smith held a one-handed as he dived from a wide first slip. Fletcher was being battered verbally as well as technically by Starc, and it wasn’t long before he was taken off the shoulder of the bat at backward point.
Three wickets down with the ball still new, West Indies were in a most precarious position when Ramdin joined Samuels. Initially their response was obstinate defence, absorbing the bounce and speed of Starc and Hazlewood, then the early forays of James Faulkner, Scott Boland and Mitchell Marsh.
Nearly seven overs passed without a boundary, and it was 64 for 3 in the 20th over when Samuels decided Boland and Marsh had to go. In the space of two overs he clattered 27 runs from the support seamers, tilting momentum back towards the west Indies for the first time all innings.
Batting conditions had eased considerably, and Smith had no quality spin-bowling option to change things up. He resorted to the part-timers of Aaron Finch before trying Maxwell, and neither man could procure a wicket. Samuels and Ramdin carried on with increasing authority, setting up the ideal platform for West Indies’ brute force further down the order.
Ultimately Ramdin would fall short of a century, bowled having a swing at Starc, but critically Smith had been forced to use up his striker bowler’s overs well before the end of the innings. Pollard arrived in ideal circumstances, but after a Maxwell attempt to catch him off Hazlewood became six when the fielder’s foot slipped onto the midwicket rope, he was unable to repeat the trick against Boland.
Australian frustration at the match situation was borne out in numerous verbal stoushes with Pollard and Samuels in particular – on the fringe of elimination, it was the most animated they had been all tournament. The niggle was evidence of a team trying to assert themselves, but also of the heightened stakes in the match. Smith, Marsh and Maxwell would rise suitably to the occasion. West Indies are left needing to beat South Africa to qualify for the decider.
(Taken from ESPN Sports Media Ltd)