However much purists may bemoan the timing of this series, they cannot complain about the dénoument. England overcame a stunning hat-trick by Australian paceman Clint McKay to level matters at 1-1 and set up a key decider in Southampton tomorrow.
Jos Buttler’s sparkling unbeaten 65 from 48 balls, including five fours and two sixes, let Ashley Giles’ men clinch a three-wicket victory after passing their 227 target with just three balls to spare in Cardiff.
Wicketkeeper Buttler shared a crucial 75-run partnership with Ben Stokes to deny Australia an unassailable 2-0 lead, which appeared to be on the cards as McKay surged through England’s top order with an inspirational performance.
The 6ft 4in Victoria paceman stunned the hosts as he became the first Australian bowler since Dan Christian in March 2012 to take three wickets in three balls.
Mackay’s first victim was Kevin Pietersen as England’s main man was leg before pushing forward to a full delivery. The 24-year-old then removed the out-of-form Jonathan Trott, who was guilty of a loose drive that Aaron Finch took at second slip. Finally Shane Watson reacted quickly at first slip to claim Joe Root and seal the hat-trick.
Hat-tricks are a rare commodity. This was only the fifth time an Australian bowler had achieved the feat in this form of the game.
It gave Australia a foothold in the game after a below-par 227 all out, salvaged by George Bailey’s superb knock of 87. England were wobbling at 8-3 but, after Michael Carberry and captain Eoin Morgan scored half-centuries, Buttler added the gloss with a classy display.
Trailing one-nil with two to play, England started when Steven Finn trapped Finch leg-before in front of middle stump with his first legitimate ball after starting with a wide.
It got worse for Australia as Watson was out with just 11 runs on the board. Londonderry’s finest Boyd Rankin found extra bounce to beat the bat of the fencing Watson, giving Buttler a routine catch.
The early double blow brought in Michael Clarke and as the Australian captain set about repairing the damage, there was a comical moment after he pulled Rankin for four. The ball became lodged in a piece of drainage tubing and required Finn and James Tredwell to shake it for several minutes to release the ball.
Stokes replaced Finn and in his second over the Durham all-rounder claimed his first one-day wicket to remove Shaun Marsh, Buttler taking an excellent one-handed catch.
Then the tourists were in deep trouble at 57-4 when Finn pinned Clarke on the back foot and the Australian’s review showed that the ball would have just clipped the top of the bail, so he had to go.
A 67 run-partnership between Adam Voges and George Bailey relieved some of the pressure before Voges was bowled by Ravi Bopara for 30. Bailey in his 28th match became the 36th Australian to reach 1,000 one-day international runs. Thirty-five his first 50 runs came off the spinner Tredwell.
Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade chipped in with 36 during an 85-run partnership with Bailey before slicing Tredwell to short third man Carberry as Australia reached 209-6 with seven overs and a ball left. But England cleaned up the remaining five wickets for just 18 runs.
James Faulkner was run out by Trott for one, Tredwell bowled Mitchell Johnson before Bailey edged Rankin to Buttler. Tredwell took the wicket of McKay as Australia finished 10 balls shy of their 50-overs – and that proved costly as England edged home.