England’s victory over Australia at Edgbaston was, in many ways, a tale of two middle orders.
Australia came in to this game with none of their batsmen at five, six or seven having faced a ball in the tournament because of the two no-results in their previous games. Above them, Moises Henriques at number four had only faced 14 balls himself. And to compound matters, one of their warm-up games was also rained off without the middle order having a hit.
The weather has played havoc with Australia’s competition, of that there can be no doubt, and it meant that when they needed their middle order to fire them to a winning score today after Aaron Finch and Steve Smith had set a good platform, they had nobody in match form or rhythm who could do so. In all, they lost wickets three to seven for just 84 runs.
Contrast that to England’s middle order. The partnership between Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes, worth 159 runs, was a stunning riposte to the early aggression of Australia’s bowlers and Jos Buttler, albeit via a let off when Glenn Maxwell missed a sitter at gully, scored at almost a run a ball to make sure England were well above the par score on DLS when the rain came and ended proceedings. All three of them had made a score in the tournament before this game – Stokes and Morgan had scored runs in the South African series too – so they had both confidence and time in the middle behind them.
Despite a lack of time in the middle, Smith was reluctant to use that as an excuse for the performance of his batsmen: “We only had one hit, but that should be good enough for the players that we’ve got on our team. You know, we’ve got some good players in our line-up. I thought we let ourselves down a little bit today.”
It is hard not to feel for Australia’s predicament although it must be said they may have found it tough to go through even if the weather hadn’t intervened in their previous two games. They would have beaten Bangladesh had the rain not come at The Oval but would probably have lost to New Zealand in their opener had the game gone the distance. That still would have given them the two points they ended up with. Yet the rain, and the resulting lack of game time clearly meant their middle order in particular was ring rusty coming in to this encounter.
Some of the dismissals in that Australian middle order were symptomatic of players being undercooked. Henriques miss-hit a half-volley from Rashid straight to mid-on and Glenn Maxwell at six looked less than his usual fluent self – as did Smith – reaching 20 off 31 balls before pulling Mark Wood to Jason Roy at deep midwicket who took an excellent juggling catch on the boundary.
It didn’t stop there. Matthew Wade at seven got a leading edge to a regulation delivery from Rashid which ended up going straight back to the bowler and Mitchell Starc at eight was caught attempting to nudge a full-toss in to the leg-side.
Australia didn’t help themselves with their selection either. Henriques, who is yet to reach 20 in nine ODI innings, is clearly not a number four at international level and the error of that decision was further highlighted by the assured performance of Travis Head at number five as he made an unbeaten half-century. Australia were keen to play an all-rounder in this tournament, hence the selection of Henriques, but they haven’t got the calibre of player to fill the role that high in the batting order. It proves just how valuable, and rare, a player like Stokes is, someone who would be worth their position in the side purely as a batsman or a bowler.
Yet it was the contrasting demeanour of the players which gave most clues as to their respective moods. Where England’s middle order oozed confidence and positive intent – even when Australia had reduced them to 35 for 3, Morgan was walking down the wicket to Josh Hazelwood – the majority of Australia’s batsmen, with the exception of the openers, looked timid and uncertain on a very flat pitch. There were plenty of swipes of the bat and shakes of the head when shots didn’t end up where they wanted them to, which suggested they were battling their own games as well as England’s bowlers. Australia simply never got going.
It was a frustrating day and it has been a frustrating tournament for Smith’s team who, it must be remembered, were one of the favourites at the start of the competition. Tomorrow, they will be on a plane home whereas England, and their dynamic middle order, press on.