A bizarre run chase by Australia marred by awful tactics saw them lose their blockbuster match against India last night.
Fans who stayed up late to watch this contest were left befuddled by the absurd cricket that unfolded after Australia were set a huge chase of 353 by India.
Given Australia has a batting lineup packed with batsmen who score at a gentle pace, the only way they were likely to haul in such a mammoth total was by taking risks.
They needed to start by attacking India’s new ball bowlers in the first ten overs while the field was up. The obvious batsman to fill the role of chief aggressor was David Warner.
His opening partner Aaron Finch has struggled against India this year and prefers to start slowly before accelerating once set.
By comparison, Warner is one of the world’s most dynamic batsmen and just finished clattering these same Indian bowlers in the IPL, where he was the leading runscorer.
Surely, then, Warner would chance his arm early on to, at a minimum, stop the required run rate from ballooning. Nope. Not happening. Forget about it. Instead Warner creeped, crawled, plodded to 56 from 84 balls.
Now consider what that innings meant for his teammates. Because Warner scored at just four runs per over, the remainder of the Australian batsmen were effectively left needing to make 297 from 216 balls at a daunting run rate of 8.25 runs per over.
This wasn’t just a case of Warner being out of nick either. Even once he had been at the crease for well over an hour he was still regularly dead-batting deliveries at his toes with nary an intention of scampering even a single. Warner incredibly ate up 46 dot balls during his weird innings.
When finally he showed some aggression and holed out to deep midwicket, Australia did something strange. Very strange. Needing 220 runs at a whopping 8.7 runs per over, they sent out accumulator Usman Khawaja to partner the accumulator who was already at the crease in Steve Smith.
At this stage Australia’s extremely slim chance of victory hinged on master blaster Glenn Maxwell coming to the crease at the fall of Warner’s wicket and going ballistic.
Maxwell knows how to bully the Indian bowlers. He has a career scoring rate of 7.7 runs per over against India in ODIs, and just over three months ago smashed 113no from 55 balls against them in a T20I.
But no, Australia instead sent out Khawaja, a fine ODI batsman but one with a career scoring rate of 4.96 runs per over.
The conservative pair of Smith and Khawaja would typically struggle to score at much more than six runs per over in tandem. Here they were being asked to travel at almost nine an over.
It wasn’t their fault, they simply had been miscast in a role Maxwell was born to play.
Late in the innings Maxwell and Carey managed to get after the Indian bowlers but they had been handed a near impossible task.
The peculiar occurrences in the first two-thirds of the innings had robbed them of a reasonable platform from which to launch.
Be thankful, many of you, that you were asleep while those earlier events were taking place. Because it was farcical and frustrating and you could chuck another f-word in front of both of those terms.
Australia long ago built a reputation as a cricket team which believes in the impossible, which continues to chase victory even when it seems to be out of reach.
This flattering perception was enhanced in their previous match when they fought back from a dire situation to beat the West Indies.
That victory was their eleventh on the trot in ODIs. They entered this massive match against India with form and confidence on their side.
The risk now is that last night’s odd, sheepish performance may erase much of that momentum. And in a World Cup, momentum is king.
Earlier Australia produced one of their loosest bowling displays in some time. Great credit must be awarded to the Indian batting lineup who paced their innings beautifully and operated with an admirable mix of composure, aggression and innovation.
Shikhar Dhawan (117), Virat Kohli (82), Hardik Pandya (48 from 27 balls) and Rohit Sharma (57) all were impressive.
But that should not conceal the laboured efforts of several of the Australian bowlers. Particularly disappointing was leg spinner Adam Zampa (0-50 from six overs), who had bowled with confidence and clear strategies as Australia beat India on the road earlier this year.
Yesterday Zampa was off-kilter from the get-go. His first ball was a rank half tracker which was swatted for four by Rohit Sharma (57) and he followed that with a full toss. Across his six overs Zampa could find neither the correct length nor the appropriate trajectory.
He alternated between dragging deliveries down or floating them up. His poor display made it very hard for skipper Aaron Finch to execute set strategies.
Finch surely would have planned on Zampa bowling a long spell once he came on soon after the first Power Play but instead he had to drag him and then reintroduce his frontline quicks prematurely.
The other knock-on effect was that Finch had to give extra overs to all-rounders Marcus Stoinis (2-62 from seven overs) and Glenn Maxwell (0-45 from seven overs) who together went at 7.6 runs per over.
Stoinis picked up a couple of cheap late wickets as India went the slog but looked vulnerable throughout. Maxwell, meanwhile, began well before taking some tap later on.
Coulter-Nile (1-63 from 10 overs) had a horrible start but, to his credit, fought back well and should have had a second wicket, that of the dangerous Pandya. Instead wicketkeeper Alex Carey dropped a regulation edge from Pandya’s first ball faced.
That mistake probably ended up costing Australia 15-20 runs, pushing India from a very good score to a massive total.
It was left to Pat Cummins (1-55 from 10 overs) and Mitchell Starc (1-74 from 10 overs) to try to rectify Carey’s mistake.
Cummins again was excellent but Starc was wayward for most of the day and appeared to be missing the rhythm he had exhibited while taking five wickets against the West Indies.
Australia, of course, already had two wins in the bank, so last night’s loss was by no means a disaster in regards to qualifying for the semi-finals.
India are a fantastic ODI side, my favourites to win this World Cup, and they played very well last night. They deserved to win.
The focus on Australia’s curious tactics is not intended to obscure or downgrade India’s achievement. Rather it is to highlight one of the most perplexing passages of play by an Australian side in a long while.
The last time I felt this flummoxed by the Australian team, Cameron Bancroft was suffering from nasty chafing.