Nerveless Australia edge to victory
An undistinguished batting display from England allowed Australia to steal in and eke out a narrow four-run win in a tense curtain-raiser to the NatWest Series at the Brit Oval.
After Callum Ferguson’s superbly compiled 71 not out from 75 balls hauled the tourists up to 260 for five, England simply gave their lower order too much to do as they ended on 256 for eight from their 50 overs.
Adil Rashid’s gutsy array of lower-order hitting gave England a glimpse of victory as he and Luke Wright (38 from 24) almost saw Andrew Strauss’ side over the line.
In the end, however, the home crowd were left to rue what might have been as Rashid’s pulsating unbeaten 31 from 23 balls proved in vain.
The home side’s chase began badly as Strauss departed early, the skipper snicking Brett Lee comfortably into Cameron White’s grasp at first slip for 12 off 14 balls.
Ravi Bopara and Matt Prior both appeared unhurried in playing themselves in, the home side accumulating quietly as the pair pushed and nudged their way through the powerplays.
Indeed, on a pitch conducive to spin even the introduction of Nathan Hauritz failed to stem the deluge of singles as the duo brought up the fifty-partnership off 73 balls in the 17th over.
With the score on 83 Prior was the first to go when - having appeared untroubled - he played a reverse sweep to Hauritz and was caught by Mitchell Johnson at short third man for 27 off 47 balls.
Owais Shah’s arrival at the crease brought with it a crunching boundary through the covers as he greeted Lee’s second spell. His second four came two balls later with an unorthodox paddle off the back foot to fine-leg.
The momentum of England’s innings was disrupted further however with the dismissal of Bopara, who was one run shy of his fifth ODI fifty when he leaned forward to a floated Hauritz delivery - his 88th - and was summarily stumped by wicketkeeper Tim Paine.
Shah looked likely to cut loose when he flicked Johnson to fine-leg for four on his reintroduction, however he fell next ball for 40 from 48 balls in unusual circumstances when he trod on his leg stump playing the same shot.
Paul Collingwood, who had faced 39 balls during a laboured knock, then clipped Johnson to Shane Watson at midwicket for 23 to leave England on 168 for five.
Luke Wright’s handsome six off Watson’s next over gave a dormant crowd hope but Stuart Broad’s tame dismissal in lobbing a short ball from Johnson to Michael Clarke at point for two shortly afterwards left England again in peril.
With England stuttering it was left to Wright to seize the initiative as he welcomed Lee’s introduction at the start of the third powerplay with a couple of meaty boundaries.
Nathan Bracken’s following over was flayed for two more fours as Rashid pierced the gaps in the covers, with Wright again showing his class by sweeping Watson over fine-leg for four shortly afterwards.
Wright’s wicket looked the deciding factor and so it proved. The all-rounder was unluckily run out for 38 from only 27 balls by Paine after missing an attempted sweep at Lee, which coincidentally was a no-ball.
Graeme Swann came and went when for four he nicked Watson’s slower ball behind, and despite some admirable hitting from Rashid - particularly against Lee - he and Ryan Sidebottom fell agonisingly short from Bracken’s last over.
Previously in the day Australia had also got off to a poor start when Watson gifted England an early breakthrough as he ran out Paine for a duck after calling him through for a suicidal run to Collingwood at backward point.
Watson rebuilt with White, batting at number three, and they guided Australia past the 50-mark with ease.
Indeed, the Test opener continued his productive tour in elegant fashion and looked set for a big score until he contrived to literally hand Collingwood his first wicket as he meekly turned back an innocuous delivery off the leading edge to fall caught and bowled for 46 from 50 balls.
His dismissal proved pivotal as England smothered the tourists from that point onwards, in spite of White bringing up the Australia hundred with his seventh boundary, and his own half-century from 64 balls shortly afterwards.
White’s needless run-out after he had made an attractive 53 from 71 balls brought Clarke and Ferguson together, and the pair added 79 in 18.1 overs before the latter fell to Collingwood for 45 from 72 balls.
Ferguson’s half-century - his fourth in ODI’s - arrived from 62 deliveries as he and Mike Hussey (20 from 14 balls) looked to kick on in the final powerplay.
Hussey’s knock was cut short by a Sidebottom yorker, with James Hopes (17 not out from 10 balls) and Ferguson then hauling the tourists past the 250-mark and beyond during a final frantic few overs.