For a match that appeared over inside 10 overs, Australia's first ODI victory since September did not come easy. The new-ball pair of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood filleted England's top order, but Chris Woakes' doughty rearguard and Adil Rashid's variations allowed the Australia Day ODI to creep into floodlit hours while Travis Head guided his team close to home.
A slimmer-than-expected Adelaide Oval crowd of 24,329 seemed destined to be filing out of the exits early when Cummins and Hazlewood combined to have Eoin Morgan's side a sickly 5 for 8 as the new ball swung and seamed, before Woakes delivered his latest outstanding display of a series England had already won.
Woakes' innings ensured that Australia needed at least one score of note to register their first ODI win since last year's India tour and only their second since January 2017, and it was Head, returning to the top of the order in the absence of the injured Aaron Finch, who provided it. His calm presence, laced with regular boundaries, contrasted with less certain innings from David Warner, Cameron White and the captain Steven Smith. Winners or not, this Australian side is a long way from peak batting performance, meaning Glenn Maxwell is a fair chance to play in the final match of the series in Perth on Sunday.
That Australia were not chasing more runs was due to the adroit use of helpful conditions by Hazlewood and Cummins with the new ball, in a display that will be of interest in the context of the looming Test tour to South Africa. Andrew Tye, too, contributed a serviceable spell featuring his first ODI wickets, though Mitchell Marsh, Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa were somewhat less dangerous.
Damp and humid weather in Adelaide had encouraged Smith to bowl first upon winning the toss, even though the hosts rested Mitchell Starc after he played in the first three matches. England lost Liam Plunkett due to a hamstring injury in the third match in Sydney, with Tom Curran called in.
Adelaide Oval's pitch has become known for its even grass coverage and the prospect of some assistance for bowlers as well as batsmen, but the surface combined with the weather made conditions decidedly awkward for batsmen early on - akin more to the early overs of a Test match than the first innings of a 50-over affair. Combined with England's hyper-aggressive attitude to the early overs of an ODI innings, the result was a truly rare rush of early wickets.
Second ball of the match, Jason Roy sliced an airy drive at Hazlewood and was pouched in the gully by Smith, then in the fourth over Cummins found sharp seam movement to bowl Alex Hales off his pads. At the other end Jonny Bairstow drove eagerly at Hazlewood and edged through to Tim Paine, and in the next over Joe Root's hook shot flew with some precision into the hands of fine leg.
When Jos Buttler was out to one of the balls of the summer, a Hazlewood seamer that pitched on the off stump before prancing away and gifting Paine another catch, England had lost four wickets in as many overs. Only once in ODI history, when Canada were 5 for 7 against the Netherlands in 2013, had the fifth wicket fallen at a lower score, and an exceptionally quick finish seemed in the offing.
However, the conditions eased slightly as the ball lost some shine, and Smith seemed content to conserve his bowlers rather than going for the kill. The resultant breathing room allowed Morgan and Moeen Ali to raise a 50 stand, before the return of Cummins and an excellent short ball had Morgan gloving down the leg side. Moeen's innings ended when he hooked Tye straight at Head, centimetres inside the midwicket boundary on the members' side, and Rashid soon feathered Cummins' fourth wicket.
Woakes, though, played another excellent innings, in vastly different circumstances to the first three matches, working the ball around and then hitting out powerfully when the bowlers strayed into his scoring zones. Curran offered typically determined support, with the occasional flourish like one terrific pull shot in Hazlewood's final over. While Woakes fell short of a century, he and the rest of England's bowlers gave themselves a chance to challenge Australia on a pitch still amenable to the new ball.
A year ago Warner and Haed had combined to add a world record 284 against Pakistan, but this time their union was worth a mere 25 when Warner edged a Woakes delivery angled neatly across him. White had said before this match that, not being "stupid", he knew he needed runs to give himself a chance of figuring in Australia's further plans, but was defeated by a nip-backer from Curran that pinned him in front of the stumps.
Smith's own underwhelming ODI series was maintained when he sliced a forcing shot at Rashid and was reflexively caught at slip by Root, also the fifth time the wrist spinner had found a way past Australia's captain in ODIs. Marsh hinted at permanence in a stand with Head that soothed any lingering Australian nerves, but after he hammered a return catch to Rashid, Stoinis misread a top spinner to sky a catch.
Tim Paine survived his own share of nervous moments, and Head was mortified to shell a catch to mid-on with only 17 required and four short of his century. Cummins was run out in an awful mix-up with Paine, and it was a nervous Tye who accompanied Paine to the finish, albeit with 13 overs to spare. If winning is a habit, then Australia's limited overs team still have plenty of forming to do.