A masterful century by Steve Smith underscored Australia’s victory over England in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup warm-up game at the Hampshire Bowl.
Try telling the crowd of 11,441 packed into Southampton’s verdant bowl that this see-sawing scrap between cricket’s oldest foes was nothing more than a warm-up.
The game may have lacked official ODI status, but it didn’t lack for tension. If these teams were to serve up a classic like this when they meet at Lord’s on 25 June, such a match would be talked about for years.
With 98 overs bowled, the game had yet to be decided. England needed 21 runs, with two wickets in hand. The tailenders Adil Rashid and Liam Plunkett were at the crease, Rashid all skittish invention, Plunkett favouring heavy blows into the leg-side. Summoned to bowl the penultimate over, Kane Richardson was outstanding, holding his nerve to restrict the pair to just six runs.
With 15 needed from the last, it was left to Marcus Stoinis. His first delivery was banged in. It sat up, and Plunkett clubbed it hard and flat into the leg-side where Glenn Maxwell, on as a sub fielder and glinting into the setting sun, took a superb running catch. England’s fight was over. Australia had won by 12 runs.
Australia will be emboldened. Their plans appear to be taking shape. A lively performance with the ball underscored an excellent showing in the field. Richardson and Jason Behrendorff were sharp and threatening in the absence of gun quicks Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc, while the contrasting spinners Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon went for just 91 from their 20 overs.
But the big story will be a cathartic and quite brilliant century by Steve Smith. In the build-up to the match Justin Langer had been effusive about Smith’s preparation, identifying his incessant shadow batting – on the beach, in the shower – as a sign that one of the greats of the modern era was back, reinvigorated and ready to go again.
This was a masterclass of an innings. Creative at times, watertight when he needed to be, and adorned with a brace of sixes on this huge ground that will live in the collective memory. Smith entered the fray at No.4, his chosen position, crossing David Warner on the outfield after the opener's spirited 43 from 55 balls had been halted by a Plunkett effort ball that got big on him, Jonny Bairstow taking an excellent catch sprinting round at deep mid-wicket
He was sinuously into his work. All the quirks, tics and mannerisms were in evidence, as was the trademark scudding cover drive to get him going. The fifty was brought up in 52 balls, and thereafter Smith bounced to the cusp of another three figures. On 92, he unfurled the first maximum, an incredible lofted back-foot punch off Ben Stokes that carried the longest part of the ground.
The second, after his century had been registered, was in the slot and deposited over long off. His caught-and-bowled dismissal in the final over required a few close inspections form the third umpire, Joel Wilson, but it mattered not: Smith is back, and as compelling as ever.
England’s run chase was instructive. After the fall of Jos Buttler in the 29th over for an astonishing half-century that for 32 engrossing minutes threatened to marmalise Australia’s challenging total, the pressure of the chase was passed to the second string in this famed line-up. It will sting that they were unable to get the job done.
James Vince’s presence in this squad is a show of faith in the potential of a batsman whose unquestionable class has yet to translate into irrefutable runs. He came into this match with a highest ODI score of 51 and four international half-centuries. His 64 here in front of his home crowd was a classically Vincian innings, dripping with immaculate strokeplay yet frustratingly incomplete. His slumped reaction, after steering a short ball from the impressive Behrendorff to backward point, spoke of a man who knew a breakthrough century had been there for the taking.
Moeen Ali, meanwhile, is a more established component of this line-up, but such is the dominance of England's top order that his last ODI half-century came in September 2017, while Chris Woakes was batting for just the sixth time in 17 50-over games. Both batted positively, though Moeen will be disappointed to have lofted Zampa to long-on with England still needing 59 at just a tick over a run a ball. When in the 48th over Woakes was run out for an excellent 44-ball 40, the match tilted decisively to Australia.
If Smith’s innings was the cornerstone of Australia’s innings, Plunkett was England’s enforcer. The seamer has waited 12 years to play in his second ICC World Cup, and at 33 looks as strong and quick as at any stage in his career. His four wickets stemmed the Australian charge, and he was well backed up by Tom Curran, whose 1/54 from 10 overs barely reflected his excellence with the new ball and invention at the death.
And how England could need this depth in their seam-bowling stocks; Curran may well be taking on a lot of work. Mark Wood took the new ball today but was forced off the field one ball into his fourth over. It was later confirmed that he had gone for a “precautionary scan” after experiencing discomfort in his left foot. "England’s medical team want to ensure there is nothing serious in the build up to the start of the World Cup,” said an ECB spokesman. Wood’s history of ankle problems increases the concern around his wellbeing.
Additionally, Liam Dawson did not bat after splitting the skin on his right ring finger, while Eoin Morgan’s flake fracture of the index finger of his left hand, contracted in practice on the eve of the game, saw him sit out this match. At one stage Paul Collingwood, aged 43 and a part of England’s back-room staff, was patrolling the region at mid-wicket.
Morgan will, he says, be fit for the pipe-opener on Thursday against South Africa. It remains to be seen if he will be selecting his final XI from a fully fit squad. In the final round of warm-up matches, England face Afghanistan on Monday at The Oval, with Australia playing Sri Lanka, again at Southampton. They have enjoyed their time on the south coast so far.
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