They were handing out sandpaper boundary placards on the way up from Vauxhall Tube Station, but in the end, nothing could smooth away the rough edges in Australia’s new-look batting line-up. Despite their rookie bowling attack mounting a spirited defence of a substandard target of 215, England overcame a double dose of jitters to seal a three-wicket victory in the first ODI at The Kia Oval.
Most of the pre-series focus had, rightly, been on the absence of Australia’s finest two batsmen, David Warner and Steven Smith, and, as might have been expected, they struggled to mitigate for that void in class. After winning the toss on a bright afternoon in South London, Australia mustered 214 in 47 overs, the sort of slow-death innings that exposed their shortcomings more comprehensively than a full-on batting collapse could have done.
Nevertheless, England aren’t without a few notable embarrassments in their (very) recent history, and only days after failing to close out a chase of 372 to hand Scotland a famous victory, they came improbably close to stumbling in pursuit of a target of barely half that height. The beanpole seamer Billy Stanlake was the catalyst for Australia’s defiance, bowling Jason Roy second-ball for a duck as England slipped to 38 for 3 at the top of their innings, before Andrew Tye and his illegible T20 variations came to the fore in the tense closing stages.
In the end it was left to David Willey to haul England over the line with an improbably grindy knock of 35 from 41 balls, with Liam Plunkett unbowed for the second match running on 3. But even then, England still won with a handsome 36 deliveries to spare, which spoke to the gulf in batting quality more eloquently than the official margin of victory.
That was largely a testament to the elder-statesman class of Joe Root and Eoin Morgan. Their fourth-wicket stand of 115 in 21 overs managed to combine defensive accumulation with calculated aggression in a manner that Australia’s own middle order had been unable to replicate. Without such knowhow to rescue their innings, England really would have been in the soup. But then again, that is the entire point of experience.
Before the start of play, Tim Paine had seemed visibly excited at the prospect of ending all the talk of sledging and cheating, and getting back to the day job. But, by the innings break, the captain who had instigated a pre-match handshake with his opponents to mark the start of a new era for his team might have been wondering if he was really that keen to starting talking about actual cricket once again.
The early exchanges of Australia’s innings amounted to a vivisection of the tourists’ anxieties in overseas conditions. Willey’s prodigious new-ball swing accounted for Travis Head via a flat-footed slash to slip from his second delivery, before Moeen Ali came whirling through the middle overs, putting his miserable winter behind him with single-spell figures of 10-1-43-3 that might have been lifted straight out of the 1997 Texaco Trophy.
Four balls into Moeen’s spell, Aaron Finch gave himself room outside off to pick out short third man with an ambitious wipe.
Two balls into his second over, Shaun Marsh stayed leg-side of a well-flighted tweaker, a la Ben Duckett in Bangladesh, and lost his off stump for 24. And when Paine himself, desperate to set a tempo, any tempo, offered catching practice to short third man with a muffed reverse sweep, Moeen’s figures were 3 for 11 in 4.1 overs.