Something about England seems to inspire Steven Smith to do his best. The warm-up in Southampton, where he was greeted by a considerable amount of hostility, was no different.
Since returning from his years-long ban, he has achieved his fourth score over fifty, transforming it into a hundred that formed the backbone of Australia’s 297 for Nine. England might want to pursue it, but on a bipartite surface, despite the brilliance of Captain Jos Buttler, it proved unattainable.
England had only eleven good players at the start, instead of the 15th allowed. After three balls in the seventh round, there was a pandemic turn in which Mark Wood had stopped in the run-up. Substitute Jofra Archer lost two balls later when he came on deep midfield border slipped.
Later, the spinner with left arm, Liam Dawson, split the skin on the finger of his right hand and was out of competition. Substitute players, including co-trainer Paul Collingwood, who turns 43 in one day, came in and walked through the revolving door. Wood also did a precautionary scan, which James Vince confirmed was “not too serious.”
Australia was untouched by chaos as David Warner and Shaun Marsh fought steadily, gaining 63 points following the early loss of captain Aaron Finch. Then Warner got out of Liam Plunkett to mark Smith’s arrival.
Smith fought fluently without being in a hurry, putting good balls into empty pockets and dealing with the bad ones. He had support from the innings, without any significant contribution from anyone. Marsh left for 30 and Usman Khawaja made 31 before he was overthrown by Dawson when he revealed his intention too soon.
If this had been an ODI, Australia might have been upset by the missed starts, but in a warm-up, it was great that everyone had a hit. Marcus Stoinis was another who got in and could not continue when Smith called him, which should have been an easy second if the all-rounder had not watched the ball. That brought Alex Carey and through him Australia found a late impulse.
He hit a 14-ball 30 before he was brilliantly caught by a diver Tom Curran. At the other end, Smith opened with a six over the extra cover and one over the Warden’s head, bringing his hundreds in between with a kick to the square leg.
The Australian inning ended amidst controversy and confusion when Smith was caught and thrown off, which seemed like a hit ball. Curious, he was ready to go until he saw the repetition and felt different. However, the third referee considered the evidence conclusive to exclude Smith.
England started the pursuit nervously, but luck was on her side. Jason Roy was hit on the helmet, dropped by Smith as he slipped, and nearly tore up one. These moments of uncertainty seemed to move him to action as he suddenly discovered the center of his club, but the surface already showed signs of variable rebound as some straightened from one length and some slipped from similar areas to the goalkeeper.
There followed doors as Jonny Bairstow spliced Jason Behrendorff in the middle and pushed Roy into a spot that was in the surface and rebounded higher than he expected to be caught in short cover. Ben Stokes struggled with the timing of his stay, which was shortened by Nathan Lyon, as he gave Stokes a wide berth and dulled him.
That made Buttler squirm and with him out there, nothing seemed impossible. He looked authoritative from the beginning and rejected all theories about the need to keep an eye on things. But even at this stage, he seemed to beat himself. This became obvious when he smoked Nathan Coulter-Nile with three fours and two sixes.
A walloping like this would have forced Finch’s hand into an ODI, but here he could afford to stay with the pacemaker, and was rewarded next time when he made a Buttler mistake from a well camouflaged ankle ball.
The attack brought parity to the competition, although James Vince had dropped for 64 and England 101 from 97 with five wickets in his hand needed. Chris Woakes, who played just as a batsman, improved his reputation with a composed 44-ball-40 who kept England on the hunt, but his run-out in search of a fast single that took him back to England in the 48th had brought the strike with too much to do.