England’s victory exposed the blemishes in an Australian side that had so far enjoyed a perfect record at this World Cup. (Reuters: John Sibley)
As any good carpenter can tell you, a good finish hides a multitude of blemishes.
The World Cup pool match between Australia and England had both, as several thousand at Bristol stayed locked to the action until the final ball.
That ball saw Australia needing six to win, after some fine late hitting from Ashleigh Gardner and Alyssa Healy narrowed an unlikely equation of 42 from 19 balls to something attainable.
For England, it didn’t matter how the win came. It broke a losing streak to Australia in World Cups dating back to 1993, and compensated on the points table for a surprise loss to India in the opening game of this edition.
“A wee one,” said player-of-the-match Katharine Brunt in her Barnsbury tones, when asked if there would be a celebration. Make no mistake, England will take great heart and rejoice accordingly. Brunt will lead them there as well.
The World Cup streak aside, England has had a more general choking habit against Australia in recent years. The World Twenty20 semi-final last year was a shambles. Home advantage in the last Ashes couldn’t stop England surrendering a series of strong positions.
This was a game England needed to win, for the team’s own belief and sense of purpose. Conversely, it may also have been a game Australia needed to lose, to realise what has gone wrong and take steps to fix it.
Meg Lanning is battling a shoulder injury, and can not be expected to carry the load alone. (Reuters: John Sibley)
The most basic of these problems were game mechanics. The more complex involve the culture around the team setup.
For the former category, chalk up extras, poor running, and a slow start. The breadth of a wides column reading 23 might as well be a chasm. Blame the bowlers who delivered them, but with greater anticipation Healy might have stopped two going to the boundary. She also dropped a pair of catches.
With no television umpire for run-outs, batsmen have a proven advantage in close calls. Yet all day, the Australians declined second runs after lacking urgency in their first.
Too conservative, as well, in the top order. A solid base is well and good, but Nicole Bolton and Beth Mooney scored 56 from 93 balls for an opening stand. By 25 overs Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry had knocked it around for 96 — at the time it looked too skinny for the halfway mark, and so it proved.
As for more complex issues, in the years I’ve followed the side, Australia’s management has consistently shown a rigidity in its arrangements. Selectors are slow to pick or shift players, coaches are slow to change plans, captains are slow to adjust to match situations.
There is especially, to the outside observer, an attitude that seniority within the team is paramount, and incumbency becomes a blockage.
In this case, take Gardner, who walked in and hit the longest, cleanest six of the match from her very first ball. It was placed, with a whip of the wrists, over square leg; this was no lucky slog over midwicket. It ended up amongst the crowd in the temporary stand on the ground’s eastern side.
Against Pakistan in her last start, Gardner took nine balls to hit the game’s longest shot. Chasing quick runs to swell a total, she made 22 off 13.
Gardner is more than a hitter though. As the Sydney Sixers won last season’s Big Bash, she batted at number three, producing a string of scores to repeatedly get them out of trouble, and ending up fifth in the comp for runs.
At 20 years of age, she will captain Australia’s Indigenous side to England next year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Australian touring team. She is, on every front, a class prospect with the bat.
And in this Australian team? She has been listed at eight, nine, or 10.
The first three games she didn’t get a hit. Against England, she came in with 19 balls left and more than 12 an over required.
The mantra for run chases is simple. Your best bats face the most balls. If you have players who are gambles, save them until you’re out of sure bets. You start a game of craps on the call line, not a Hard 12.
But in Australia’s hierarchy, the newest player cedes seniority. So Gardner comes in behind Elyse Villani and Healy, who have repeatedly underperformed across multiple years. Behind Alex Blackwell, who is a fine strike rotator but lacks high gears. Behind Jonassen, with a high score of 39 and an average of 17.
Hell, against New Zealand this tournament Gardner was listed to bat after Amanda Wellington, a leg-spinner 39 days her junior who enjoys a happy slog but has 22 runs in nine international games.
In the brief chances Gardner has had, she’s needed to come out swinging with no time to build an innings, as opposed to the leisurely starts for players up the order.
It was one such knock that really sank Australia’s chase. Villani might as well have a match fee from the England Cricket Board after her innings of 14 from 31 balls.
I suggested earlier this week that Villani’s half-century against Pakistan might have been a turning point. But one game later, it was back to old habits. This isn’t post-hoc wisdom about a bad day, so often she has followed the same pattern of getting bogged down, grinding too long, then biffing a catch.
Against Pakistan, Villani had got moving immediately. Against England, she did the opposite. Perhaps she imagined that she should play responsibly, but with a long batting order, her job was to find momentum.
Perry had just crashed a four and a six from the 35th over to get some started, then the Powerplay began. Five overs with three fielders allowed in the deep. Australia needing 107 from 90 balls. A situation made for Villani’s supposed attacking approach.
Instead, she faced the first ball of left-arm spin from Alex Hartley, and blocked. Drove the next to the field. Blocked. And blocked. And blocked. Then swept a single, to keep the bowling.
Already, it was bizarre. Another three balls passed before she rotated strike. Nine deliveries for two singles.
Of the Powerplay’s eventual 30 deliveries, 18 were dot balls, and 12 of those faced by Villani. The target differential had blown out to 91 runs from 60.
It was madness, pure and simple, making no attempt to score even as the requirement crashed volcanically upward. Then of course she was out, limply, slogging a catch.
The innings didn’t just hoover up much needed deliveries. It simultaneously made a vacuum of Australia’s chase, every skerrick of air sucked out of it.
If that’s how Villani approaches chases, her golden duck against New Zealand did her team a favour.
Plenty has to change for Australia — between the selectors and the batting order, the best players have to be given the best chance. The details have to be attended to, and a clear decision has to be made about whether captain Meg Lanning can play through her shoulder injury.
Luckily for her team, this was a loss that could be afforded. If the reigning champions can’t beat India and South Africa in their next two starts, they don’t deserve to make the finals.
Amongst the criticism, let’s not forget that Australia was set the highest ever World Cup run chase for the second time in three games. The first time they got it with ease, the second they fell a boundary short. There’s a lot that went well.
With a chance to put right what didn’t, the Australians of England’s next meeting could be a fiercer proposition. The questions are whether that meeting will be at the business end of this World Cup, and whether anyone in the Australian camp will be firm enough to make change happen.
On the latest evidence, it’s past time.