Australia might have lost yesterday to an understrength New Zealand side but they will have been buoyed by dynamic displays from returning superstars Steve Smith and Mitchell Starc.
The plucky Kiwis ended Australia’s run of nine consecutive wins in the 50-over format by comfortably chasing down the total of 6-277 posted by the home side in Brisbane thanks to a fine ton by Will Young.
Smith (89* from 77 balls) and Starc (2-14) showed signs of being back to their best after lengthy absences from representing Australia.
The Aussies yesterday rested all four of their bowlers who helped them win Game 1 of this three-match unofficial ODI series – Pat Cummins, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Adam Zampa and Jason Behrendorff. In a sign that neither side is taking this series too seriously – the Kiwis did not bring any of their ODI stars – Australia included a couple of players not even in their World Cup squad in Sean Abbott and Michael Neser.
While Cummins, Behrendorff and Coulter-Nile combined to take 9-114 in the first match, Abbott and Neser were obliterated, returning the woeful combined figures of 0-119 at nearly eight runs per over. Neither of that pair are close to international standard in this format.
This left Australia’s attack very vulnerable, especially with Starc limited to bowling just five overs, treated with care in his first match in 13 weeks. Australian coach Justin Langer said this week Starc was in great physical condition after his long injury lay-off and footage then emerged of him bowling absolute rockets to Smith in the nets. Starc tore the last World Cup to shreds, with 22 wickets at 10, and there were indications yesterday that he is tracking well for the 2019 edition, which starts in three weeks’ time.
Reminiscent of the way he bulldozes through teams at his peak, Starc yesterday secured both his wickets with searing yorkers which beat the batsmen for pace. In the first over of the New Zealand innings Starc castled Hamish Rutherford, and later he returned to skittle the well-set George Worker, who was on 56.
Highlights of Starc’s bowling show him operating with fine rhythm and unsettling pace. This sight was a boon for Australia on the same day they had to omit young pace ace Jhye Richardson from their World Cup squad due to his shoulder injury.
Equally as exciting for the Australian team and its fans was the impressive knock by Smith. Batting out of position at five – Smith has an imperious ODI record at No.3 – the former skipper held together the Australian innings. The Aussies lost openers David Warner (0) and Aaron Finch (16) early. Then Usman Khawaja (56) and Shaun Marsh (28) put on a slow-paced stand of 63. When both of that pair were gone Australia were 4-132 and Smith was left to first guide them out of trouble and then finish their innings with a flourish.
As you would expect from one of the world’s best batsmen, Smith achieved both of these tasks with aplomb. He hammered 26 from the last two overs, including several sixes, to lift Australia to a semi-competitive score. The reality was that Australia were about 30 runs short of a winning total. That was in part due to the slow scoring of Finch, Marsh and Khawaja, who combined made 100 from 156 balls, which equates to a scoring rate of just 3.84 runs per over.
The gentle pace of scoring of this Australian batting line-up, Warner and Maxwell apart, is one of their weaknesses. Maxwell again showed his immense value to this team yesterday by cracking 52 from 44 balls, continuing his hot recent form for Australia. But it was the return to touch of Smith and Starc which mattered most.