Ben Stokes the only saving grace for England as Australia plunge hosts further into crisis

Updated: 13/07/2024


Bit by excruciating bit England’s eminence is being stripped away. One must-win game feeds into another, and with each fading step the loading gets heavier. India up next, then New Zealand. Easy peasy. The world No 1 side? Pre-tournament favourites? On a flat track on a sunny day maybe, not under pressure with a prize to be won, nowhere near. Ben Stokes aside, the only thing England did right here was win the toss, for all the good it did them.

Inserted under pewter skies Australia survived the most demanding conditions to build a modest total by today’s helter skelter standards. In response England lost a wicket second ball. Skipper Eoin Morgan walked to the crease with England two down for 15 runs and Mitchel Starc sending down great balls of fire. Not the afternoon he was expecting when he won the toss and put Australia in. Then again Lord’s is more often than not a winning ticket for visiting sides, England losing more than they win at HQ.

The hapless James Vince rather fleshed out the view that has followed him about, namely that he is not made of the requisite stuff at this level. His exit ushered in Joe Root, a player whose talent invites no such reflection. That notwithstanding he was powerless to counter Starc in this monstrous phase, his front pad plum in front when the ball smashed into it.

Morgan’s contribution was similarly brief, pulling Starc to the fine leg boundary where Pat Cummins pouched the catch diving to his left. That sixy flourish in Cardiff against Afghanistan was being thoroughly contextualised by a tails up Australia, a team that needs little encouragement to swagger. Morgan seemed to be dragging his reputation along the floor as well as his bat as he made his way back to the hutch.

Stokes shows bottle

Just as he did at Headingley against Sri Lanka, Stokes played like the proper batsman he is and with bottle to match his pedigree. Only the ball of the tournament from the world’s best bowler was going to get him out, Starc’s wicked, dipping, reversing 90mph yorker almost crushing Stokes’ toes on its way to the stumps. WG Grace would not have kept that out. Stokes let his bat fall to the ground and gave it a kick for good measure. We felt his pain.

The defeat to Sri Lanka in Leeds settled upon this fixture an altogether different atmosphere. This was a match of consequence for England, one that would either ease their passage or ruin it. For Australia this was a free ride. That dynamic born of divergent directions of travel circumscribed the contest from the outset. Victory guaranteed Australia their semi-final status. In their diminished state England can still advance by their own hand, yet you can bet they have everything crossed New Zealand see off Pakistan next up.

Australia made the most of their luck in that tricky first hour. The ball went past the bat and to hand, albeit at lightning speed. The Aaron Finch ‘drop’ by Vince was really more a brilliant save and only encouraged his opening partner David Warner to retreat deeper into the watchful Test match mode he has adopted throughout this tournament. Finch also survived lbw review after being given not out on the way to his second century of this World Cup.

After blunting Chris Woakes to the long on boundary in the seventh over Warner was sliced in half by one that came back at him. Finch the same off the last ball of Archer’s next over. Yet survive they did to reach 44 off ten, Australia’s lowest opening power play total of the tournament.

Boos for Smith

Warner’s 53 took him to 500 runs, the highest of any batsmen in the competition, just four more than Finch, who shone brightest with the bat in this fixture. At 138/1 at half way the only concern for Australia was the rate at which they fell away. This had much to do with obdurate nature of Stokes, who sent one through Usman Khawaja’s gate to light up the stumps. The double bicep curl salute reinvigorated England and brought Steve Smith to the wicket to the familiar soundtrack of pantomime boos.

This was not his best day and when he spooned a catch to Jofra Archer at wide mid-on off Woakes to leave Australia six down for 250 he was entitled to think he might have damaged his team’s cause. As it was his array of exaggerated ticks and twitches, pulling at his pads, twirling the bat, whacking the crease, touching his helmet and flexing his knees, added up to 38 entirely superfluous runs. The boos that accompanied his return to the pavilion were in effect tribute to by far the better team.

This post first appeared here

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