New beginning, same story for England. After dusting themselves down and starting all over again, they went and lost the opening match of the one-day series against Australia here at the MCG.
The tourists’ total of 269 for 7, which seemed probably adequate and definitely competitive, was chased down at a canter with embarrassing ease. There were 26 balls at Australia’s disposal when they won by six wickets and a distinctly dodgy taste in the mouth created by some craven umpiring.
A first-wicket partnership of 163, which should have been curtailed long before, took Australia to an unassailable position. Aaron Finch scored his second ODI century (his first if his 148 against Scotland last summer is discounted) and finished with 121 from 128 balls.
He was caught by Gary Ballance running in from third man, though unfortunately it was 113 runs after Ballance had shelled a simple chance at mid-off. England have lost all six internationals they have played in this country on this tour. There are seven more to go and nobody is making any claims about anything any longer.
Although the personnel has changed substantially from the Ashes series – 10 of the players in this match did not feature in it – the mood and dynamic are unaltered. England had their chances but blew them, Australia saw a door that was ajar and charged through it like a herd of angry kangaroos.
Too much went wrong for England and when the opportunities presented themselves to make it right they spurned them. Dropped catches, errant fielding, incorrect decision reviews, a batsman who was apparently out recalled from the boundary edge after contentious TV replays and an utter but unnecessary misreading of them by the third umpire: the tourists were on the receiving end of the lot.
There is the distinct impression that Australia simply have too much power for their opponents and this is before Mitchell Johnson makes his return to their one-day bowling attack. They came out slugging, as they always intended, and their muscular hitting is at odds with England’s more considered approach. A top three of Finch, David Warner and Shane Watson (who lasted only two balls yesterday) is on a different cricketing page from that of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Joe Root, who all looked jaded players here.
What works in England does not necessarily work abroad, though England believe they have the right opening partnership for the World Cup next year. Of course, the insertion of Kevin Pietersen into the top three – he is being officially rested for this series – would transform matters and immediately ease the burden on a splendid middle order. It would probably be too much of a stretch to move Eoin Morgan up the order but England have to do some urgent thinking.
There is some gossip about summoning the pinch-hitting of Luke Wright from the Big Bash League, in which he is scoring bundles of runs. But against two new white balls he might be found wanting.
Had England’s bowlers used them with more regular accuracy, or had the chances been taken, it might have been different. But the sloppy cricket that has pervaded their tour continued.
Cook conceded later both that he needed to make runs soon (he lasted four balls) and that the side had been dropping too many catches for three or four months – “probably longer”. It is unacceptable but so are many other matters.
There were some good things for England, who picked a team which contained players born in five different countries including their own. Ballance, a Zimbabwean by birth, scored his maiden international fifty, marshalling an England innings that was in danger of foundering. The Irishman Morgan’s breezy fifty provided the most authoritative batting for the team this winter and the Barbadian Chris Jordan’s bustling fast bowling showed distinct promise. But the outcome was still defeat, England’s only constant companion of the winter so far.
Of all the aberrations littering the match, the most unfortunate and irksome was the mystifying decision to recall Warner in the 14th over. It was as if he was returning from the dead. Attempting to glide a ball from Ben Stokes to third man, Warner made too fine a contact and was caught low down by the wicketkeeper, Jos Buttler.
Umpire Simon Fry was about to confer with his square leg partner Ranmore Martinesz when Warner checked with Buttler that the ball had carried and walked. Warner was happy to go but the umpires for some reason decided to ask the third umpire, Kumar Dharmasena, to look at the slow motion replay.
These confirmed that Buttler had taken the ball low down, his gloves touching the grass. But from one angle the foreshortening of the image caused by the camera suggested that the ball had bounced. The crowd barracked. But third umpires need not be swayed by what crowds suppose.
Dharmasena, who should have received training in this, decided that this was sufficient to spare Warner, who raced back to the crease. In doing so, of course, the umpires together were doubting the word of Buttler, who was a completely innocent party, and a wronged one too since he took a clean catch.
England had already done plenty to muck matters up. Finch was dropped by Ballance at mid-off when he was on eight. It was as straightforward a chance as they come but hard hands pushing at the ball betrayed the fielder. Jordan then failed to hold on to a much more difficult opportunity of the either-they-stick-or-they-don’t variety when Warner bludgeoned a return drive to his left.
That was about as good as it got for the tourists. Ballance and especially Morgan were refreshing to watch. Morgan exuded class and charm in equal measure. The pity was that he played a loose cover drive immediately after passing 50. The late middle order, led by Buttler, whose abundant skill is becoming more evident, ensured England had a total to defend.
Unfortunately, what ensued ensured it was not enough. England need smarter strategies and smarter cricket and they need them quickly.