There is something about mornings in Nottingham; Australians seem to fear them more than most.
Aaron Finch, David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Glenn Maxwell did their best Ashes 2015 impression. Only Khawaja made it to double figures, and it’s hard to know how. No one looked more terrified by the quick short hostile bowling than Khawaja, who was hit in the head and chest before backing away and edging one while standing on the square-leg umpire’s toes.
When Maxwell skied his pull shot, the score was 38 for 4. Stuart Broad went viral again. Marcus Stoinis, maybe the only player to find some form, also found midwicket with a pull.
Australia were 79 for 5 in the 17th over, and the predicted score was 164, which looked a way off when Alex Carey didn’t find a run for his first 14 balls.
But with Carey was Steve Smith, and while the rest of the Australian top-order looked confused, he played the West Indies pacemen like they were bowling for him.
He was slow – but in charge. The control stats show he was playing a different game; the big scary bouncy fast guys turned into stuffed teddies when he was facing. If you were wondering what 12 months outside international cricket would do to his batting, the answer seemed to be nothing at all. He fidgeted at the crease, wandered across his stumps, opened the face to full balls and made runs. It was the same Smith as always.
With Smith batting as the puppet master, it allowed those at the other end to attack. So after getting to three from 25, Carey smashed his next eight balls for 4.1.4414, before Russell ended him at 45.
Then Nathan Coulter-Nile came in, with his ODI average of 12 and a top score of 30. If Australia has a weakness in their batting, it’s that it ends abruptly. Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Coulter-Nile can hit, but they aren’t batsmen or allrounders at this point. But with Smith at the other end, and Australia still below 200, he swung long.
First ball Coulter-Nile left a ball that seemed to go through the stumps. A few deliveries later there was a leading edge that was lucky. There was an inside edge through his legs. A pull that floated over midwicket. A top-edge pull finer than fine leg. A thick inside-edge close to leg. An edge that didn’t carry to the keeper. Plus a run-out chance and a drop from Shimron Hetmeyer.
They say you ride your luck, Coulter-Nile saddled himself to it.
But in between whiles, Coulter-Nile played some extraordinary shots: a flick off his toes for six, chipped full tosses straight into the crowd, not to mention a brace of sixes off Cottrell, the second of which came straight off Carlos Brathwaite’s hand. In the process he beat his top ODI score, his top score in professional cricket and the highest score by a No.8 at a World Cup. It was hard to say he deserved a hundred (if that is even a thing), but he did score nearly 32% of Australia’s total.
Smith, Carey and Coulter-Nile helped Australia score 100 more runs than ever looked possible.
Then they bowled with their four front-line bowlers and two allrounders making up the fifth slot. They were aided by West Indies’ two run-outs, and Cummins was exceptional. But Starc was like the 2015 player-of-the-tournament version of himself.
Starc was all over Chris Gayle in what seemed like an ego-off. In one over, he almost had him caught twice, had him reprieved for a caught-behind after a snick off the stump rather than the bat, and had an lbw decision given and then rescinded. That he finally got his man – albeit with a ball that should have been delivered as a free hit – seemed like a deserved wicket. With Gayle gone, Australia always seemed to have a sniff.
But in the middle overs, despite the odd wicket, the West Indies kept themselves in the game, and even ahead of it by the time they needed 79 from 72 balls with Andre Russell looking in Dre Russ form. So Australia brought Starc back on. He bowled two overs; Russell was gone.
Watch on Hotstar (India only) – Sheldon Cottrell’s wonder catch
With five overs left Starc came back on again, this time with West Indies needing 38 from 30 with Carlos Brathwaite set and scoring at just over a run a ball. Starc bagged him as well. A few deliveries later Jason Holder was gone too. And then Sheldon Cottrell was his fifth. Starc taking wickets not only won the game, but it meant that Maxwell and Stoinis didn’t have to bowl their last two overs until the game was dead.
Almost everything that wasn’t Starc or Smith wasn’t pretty – Australia’s start, their mid-innings rebuild, Coulter-Nile’s hitting and the non-Starc or Cummins bowling – but it worked. Australia turned 38 for 4 into 288, their shaky tail stood up, the fifth bowler wasn’t punished, and they rolled a quality batting line-up for 273 on a decent pitch.
Australia has not looked unbeatable at this World Cup, but they are unbeaten in two games. And because they are the team who has won almost half the World Cups ever played, when they win, other teams worry. And no-one wanted any reminders of how good Smith and Starc are.
Australia started with fear; they ended it feared.