Much has been written and spoken about Australia’s fast bowling stocks after the drawn Ashes series.
In recent years, Australian captains visiting Trent Bridge have walked away open-mouthed and void of any answers.
Twelve months ago, then ODI skipper Tim Paine strolled to the middle on an overcast Nottingham morning and, upon winning the toss, sent England in. Three and a half hours later he would lead his side off having conceded 481 – the highest ever total in ODI history.
In 2015, Test captain Michael Clarke – batting at number five – was forced to the crease on just the ninth ball of the day amid Stuart Broad-induced chaos. Clarke was soon back in the sheds and witnessed his side skittled for 60. He would announce his retirement at the end of the Test.
As such, the bar was fairly low when Aaron Finch led his side onto the haunted turf on Thursday against the West Indies. Simply avoiding embarrassment would have been a marked improvement on previous efforts at the graveyard ground.
But, as it turned out, it wasn’t just overcoming the Trent Bridge hoodoo that was so impressive from Finch, who led Australia to a 15-run win. His performance as Australian captain was one of the best in recent memory, and one that saw Australia defend 288 on one of the world’s most batsman-friendly pitches.
That fact itself bears repeating; few saw the Windies batting out their overs and failing to make the under-par total. It was, at the innings break, seemingly a game in which Australia would either take all ten wickets or concede the total within the allotted overs. But not the third option.
Against a formidable hitting unit, Finch’s shrewd field settings on a difficult ground (one that includes a ludicrously short boundary) were aggressive. But perhaps most impressive was the way he juggled strike bowlers Mitch Starc and Pat Cummins at key times in the final stages.
At one stage the Windies needed 79 off 72 with five wickets in hand. That asking rate, in modern cricket, was hardly taxing. Opposing skipper Jason Holder was anchoring the chase and Andre Russell had just monstered Adam Zampa with two powerful strikes down the ground.
Finch decided to roll and dice, and brought Starc (who had just three overs left) back in the 39th over – far earlier than expected. He encouraged his number one quick to pitch it up and force a breakthrough and to move away from the bumper barrage the left-armer inflicted earlier in the innings.
He did and was driven for four early in the over. No worries, Finch reiterated. Get it up there again. Starc did, and the powerful Russell looked to go over cow corner. But a top edge that flew behind backward point (which Glenn Maxwell sprinted back to take) would cause his undoing.
This was the moment of the game. Anyone who caught some of this year’s IPL knows Russell’s Pac-man like capacity to mow down totals. And while it was a big wicket, at this stage there was still plenty to do.
Finch then gambled on using Cummins’ final two overs in the 43rd and 45th, a move that again paid dividends when they yielded just nine runs for the Windies, driving up the required rate. Starc then bowled the 46th and took the key wickets of Carlos Brathwaite and Holder. It was a captaincy one-two punch.
“You have to keep trying to get wickets,” Finch said post-game.
“Once the West Indies get set they’re so destructive and can chase anything in that last ten overs. So you just have to keep trying to find ways of getting a breakthrough, stall some momentum and get them to take a risk. And it worked in patches today.”
This isn’t mere hindsight praise of Finch in a game where everything he did seemed to work. Rather, it’s another example in a growing sample size that Finch is developing as an astute tactician in addition to his seemingly affable leadership style.
Melbourne Renegades coach Andrew McDonald spoke earlier this year of his continual willingness to learn and develop as a leader – a trait that’s bearing fruit for Australia. Just eight months ago the ODI squad was a forlorn bunch destined for an early flight home from the World Cup.
But alongside coach Justin Langer, Finch has re-instilled belief in his side to not just win, but wrestle back games they’re seemingly out of. In Mohali earlier this year they chased down a formidable 358 against an India side on the cusp of a series victory. In Dubai they prevented a near-certain Pakistan victory, seeing off the hosts who needed just 49 off 42 with seven wickets in hand.
And now at Trent Bridge, that nightmare-inducing ground that sent previous captains to post-trauma sessions, Finch led them again to victory where they ought to have lost. He believes he can be the fifth World Cup-winning captain for Australia, and that belief is clearly rubbing off on his charges.