October 3, 2009

Australian intimidation blows England away

England felt the full force of Australia's aggression as Ponting and Watson turned executioners on the field

It felt like old times at Centurion today: as the evening grew longer and the ball continued to travel past the ropes, there was awe in the air again. England have known only misery against Australia in one-day cricket in the past few weeks, but even they are unlikely to have felt the force as strongly as they did today. The bowling was aggressive and accurate on a benign pitch, and the batting was pure intimidation.

Ten overs into the run-chase, all that remained in the match was the prospect of a grand exhibition of batting from a man who knows how to bestride the big stage. The pitch was a batting beauty and England didn't have the resources to challenge Australia after they had been let down by their batsmen, but the way Ricky Ponting began, and Shane Watson finished, it was difficult to gauge by how many runs England had fallen short.

England will have felt like they were up against two executioners. Watson, all brawn and bustle, clubbed them. Ponting, all pomp and mastery, sliced them with the dexterity of a master chef.

By the 10th over, Ponting had hit seven exquisite boundaries, each played with precision and majesty. His first five scoring strokes were fours, and four of them came off James Anderson, who alone carried England's slender hopes. Tim Bresnan, England's batting hero of the day, who would not have made the team had Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom been available, was hurried into service in the ninth over. Ponting duly dispatched him for two fours either side of the wicket, and England's options were quickly reduced to the part-timers.

The years seem to sit light on Ponting, and a break after a spirit-sapping Ashes seems to have sparked something in him. Since his return, he has made 520 runs at 74.28 from eight matches. During the course of this innings, he became the first Australian, and only the third batsman after Sachin Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya, to make 12,000 ODI runs. Throughout this tournament he has batted in the manner of his prime.

Watson ended up with more runs, but it was Ponting who snuffed out hope for England after Graham Onions had removed Tim Paine early. In fact, the contrast between the two batsmen couldn't have been more stark. In Watson's every shot, the effort was palpable. Early in his innings, he swished and missed; he then heaved and walloped, and towards the end of his innings, he simply opened his shoulders and cross-batted them into the stands.

Ponting merely stroked them, off the front foot, off the back foot, through the covers, backward of point, past midwicket, over mid-off; each stroke conceived after the ball had been delivered, and executed flawlessly. For both the batsmen, England set the bouncer trap with two men behind square. Watson, who had been dismissed pulling Ashish Nehra earlier in the tournament, missed a few, and then took to clubbing over midwicket. But Ponting employed his trademark pull, getting over the ball, rolling his wrists, placing them between fielders. From England's point of view, it was worth trying something rather than letting the innings drift away. But Ponting was too good for them.

Later Ponting said Australia had played the game exactly the way they had wanted to. "Right from the start of the England series we were focusing on being well prepared for the Champions Trophy and being in a position where we could play our best cricket when we needed to, and we did that today," Ponting said. "The Australian cricket team prides itself on standing up at big moments, and I think we have done that today."

Australia's performance with the bat put in perspective both the effort of their bowlers and that of the England batsmen. Andrew Strauss insisted later that as a team they had decided to bat aggressively, but after one spectacular success against South Africa when all the stars aligned for them, the method has now failed twice in succession.

Deep within, there will be recognition of their deficiencies. Intent can only take them so far. At best, Strauss, who hit only the ninth ODI six of his career in this game, can be a solid starter. Owais Shah's game is too one-dimensional to succeed consistently. Eoin Morgan has promise but is yet to be tested fully. With all his limitations, Paul Collingwood is their most reliable ODI batsman in the current team, and that says something. They need Kevin Pietersen to provide substance and ballast. No team can be built around one man.

England must not retreat to their timid ways following consecutive reversals. But if they do not develop their ODI batting skills, it is difficult to see them achieving consistent success in this form.

Given what transpired later, it would have perhaps been inconsequential, but it was hard to fathom why a team must wait till the last five overs to consume the batting Powerplay. Or does it say something about England's thinking despite their new-found commitment to positive batting? Were they worried that instead of seeing it as an opportunity to hit through or over the field, their set batsmen would be unsettled by the sight of men in the ring?

In the end they managed to make use only half the Powerplay, and only 13 runs came off it. In the first over of their batting Powerplay, Australia scored 23. The difference between the teams was that big.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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