It took some blazing batting for Australia and England to level their one-day international series at 2-2, but that could not be sustained in the deciding match as Australia’s bowling pressure forced an English subsidence for 138 in 33 overs en route to an eight-wicket victory.
Winning the toss and batting first, England’s early collapse of 3 for 22 was compounded when captain Eoin Morgan was forced to retire hurt after being concussed by a frightening blow from a Mitchell Starc bouncer.
John Hastings had already done his own damage after a promotion to new-ball duties, taking 2 for 6 from his first three overs on his way to 3 for 21 from 10. Mitchell Marsh then got Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, David Willey and Ben Stokes in succession for a total cost of 27 runs, sealing his place as man of the match and the series.
England thought of a comeback when Joe Burns was out for a duck and Steve Smith for 12, but a century partnership between Aaron Finch (70*) and George Bailey (41*), raised in merry fashion from 85 balls, saw Australia safely through to 2 for 140 with fewer than half its overs used.
It was a magic day for Hastings. A week earlier he would have been seen as a million miles from national selection, but an entirely unexpected call-up for the 29-year-old seamer culminated in his best ODI figures and a match-defining spell.
It was poetic that a bowler who has done the bulk of his service for Victoria had his first wicket caught by state team-mate Glenn Maxwell, lured James Taylor into nicking to Victorian keeper Matt Wade, then late in the game had Mark Wood loft to the Melbourne-raised Ashton Agar at deep cover.
The victory means Australia has not lost a one-day series on an Ashes tour since 1997, and while it is scant consolation for the Test loss, it was an important step as the world champions begin to shape their new team.
You could tell from the first over that it was not going to be England’s day, when opener Jason Roy was incorrectly given out lbw twice in three balls by umpire Joel Wilson. Roy overturned the first thanks to an inside edge, but did not believe his luck would hold twice in a row, declining to review one clearly missing leg stump.
That non-striker Alex Hales did not advise him otherwise was a final ugly rosette on an international summer so miserable that he may just have batted himself out of a Test opener’s spot. Hales slapped Hastings point to complete a run of scores reading 3, 22, 18, 9, 0 and 4 since the Twenty20 international in Cardiff.
Taylor and Morgan have been England’s best with the bat this series, but the over after Taylor’s departure, Morgan was flummoxed by Starc and could only turn his head from a ball that struck his helmet so hard it rebounded to cover.
It was ugly, but it almost seemed it has been waiting to happen. Morgan has had a rich summer — 74, 38, 85, 62 and 92 since Cardiff — but has still been troubled by the short ball, especially at pace. He was out to a Shane Watson bouncer in Southampton, was hit in the head less forcefully by Pat Cummins amid a torrid spell at Lord’s, had more trouble against Cummins in the third match at Manchester, and struggled against pace at Leeds before Smith turned to spin.
Starc was distressed, with coach Darren Lehmann speaking to him on the boundary after Morgan was accompanied off the field by medical staff.
“I think there were a couple of guys that were a bit shaken up, Starcy in particular,” said Smith after play. “Obviously it was a tough summer for us back home, losing a close mate. Hopefully Eoin is OK.”
Bairstow and Stokes staged a mini-recovery of 34 runs, but England was never back in the game as Marsh provoked three leg-before decisions and a catch behind to underline his emergence as the team’s senior all-rounder after Watson’s injury departure.
England’s total depended on an entertaining 35 not out biffed by Adil Rashid, with an unlikely source of support. Little was expected of last batsman Reece Topley, as a number 11 on ODI debut who had previously played 104 professional matches for 103 career runs.
But he batted for nearly 40 minutes, surviving 26 deliveries before Agar, another man famous for being a number 11 on debut, ended England’s day with a correct lbw call from umpire Wilson.
From there it was about as uneventful as Australia would have hoped. Burns swiped at a wide ball to top-edge Willey into the gloves, and with Australia’s innings commencing before the scheduled break, we had the Test-like scenario of Smith nicking Wood in the final over before lunch. But Bailey drilled the next ball through cover for four, and carried on after lunch until Finch began to settle.
One of the best contests of this series, alongside Morgan versus Cummins, has been Bailey versus Rashid. After ill-advisedly going back to the leg-spinner’s straight ball in the first match, Bailey has made a point of positive footwork and shot selection thereafter. Today he took Rashid’s second over for 14, lifting him three times into the leg side.
From there Finch got motoring, whipping and driving the fast men and producing a series of sweeps to the spinners that amazed even his captain.
“I think that’s one thing this team does really well, we learn quickly,” said Smith. “I don’t think Aaron Finch has ever played a sweep shot before – he said that to me after the game – and I thought he swept the ball pretty damn well today.”
The target was knocked off after 24.2 overs, to the probable relief of a bored and disgruntled Manchester crowd that had long since taken a greater interest in the varying possible speeds of a Mexican wave or the Sir Mix-A-Lot proportions of the beer snake that covered most of the well entrenched Temporary Stand.
There was nothing for Australia’s players to do then except waste some perfectly good champagne on the Old Trafford turf and enjoy their accomplishment for a scant few hours before they begin the long trip home.
A long trip, but a short stay. It will be but ten days before the likes of Smith and Starc back up these long months of international touring with the team’s next trip to Bangladesh, then a big home summer before the touring carousel revs up again.
The lights, the horses and the mirrors are all festive, but you can imagine that they would grate after a while. For now, though, the carnies are packing down the carnival for a period of quiet. However short that may be, it’s time to rest.