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Cricket news - Contenders or defenders, WI, Australia show crown is worth fighting for
It was a game that West Indies had to win to show that they were true contenders for the crown. It was a game you knew Australia would somehow find a way of winning to show why they are its true defenders, and have been so often. Throughout the day, the West Indians kept showing in brief bursts of just why the cricket world is awakening once more to the thought of them climbing to the top of the pile. Throughout the day, the West Indians kept showing in brief bursts just why the world is also hoping the new rise isn't another false dawn. And of course, at points when it mattered the most during the day, the Australians kept reminding the world why they are the team that will always find an escape route when their ascendancy is being challenged.
In a country which values the contenders, defenders and the crown itself in equal measure, it was also a chance for ODI cricket to show why it still remains relevant. And on a sunny and cheery day at Trent Bridge, the 50-over game showed why it is the perfect amalgamation of the intrigue and intensity of Test cricket and the energy and excitement of a T20 contest.
The first half-hour of play was a nostalgia-inducing throwback to the time when towering men from the Caribbean ran in fast and delivered the ball faster towards batsmen cowering in fear and at times being happy to throw their wicket away rather than get their body in the firing line. The rawness of Oshane Thomas and Sheldon Cottrell and their unadulterated attempts at sending the ball soaring towards the Aussies' heads-at times not bothering about some deliveries flying over them-only added to the fieriness of proceedings. It was also a calculated assault with skipper Jason Holder setting smart fields and in the case of Usman Khawaja, luring the batsmen into the bouncer trap. "If they come looking for bouncers, they'll get bouncers," a member of the West Indian support staff had warned a day earlier.
After Aaron Finch and David Warner had surrendered in meek fashion, it was poor Khawaja who bore the brunt. And you couldn't deny the left-hander, who copped a number of blows, some sympathy as he abdicated his spot in the middle by jumping away from his stumps and offering an edge to the wicketkeeper. Glenn Maxwell walked in, and after being offered a sucker blow in the form of a length ball first-up, was sent packing with a snorter from Cottrell, which he swatted at almost as a sign of throwing in the towel. At 38 for 4, the West Indies were on the charge. The Aussies were in retreat.
They say willpower is a muscle, and the more you work on it, the more it gets strengthened. It's a lot like winning. The more you win, the stronger your will to win. Winning's not a habit after all. It's an art that often thrives on your ability to hold your nerve. For 30 overs with the ball and 30 overs with the bat, the West Indies controlled the game, if not dominate it. But eventually it was the inexperience in closing out an ODI that runs through the line-up-save Chris Gayle - that stood out and eventually resulted in them falling short.
It's an art that Australian teams have mastered over the last few decades. And even if the present lot might have let it slip to an extent for a period of 18 months or so, they seem to have regained it since the tour of India. The resurgence started off cautiously with Steve Smith holding the fort, and Alex Carey providing the necessary impetus with some eye-catching strokeplay. But at 147 for 6 when Carey left, the West Indians seemed well and truly in command of the contest.
It is here that Nathan Coulter-Nile walked in and delivered the significant momentum-shift that often wins battles. It's unlikely he'll ever play a better knock in ODI cricket, but Thursday (June 6) in Nottingham was his moment to fire the salvo that turned the tide. The West Indians, to their credit, couldn't be blamed squarely for allowing Coulter-Nile to get away despite allowing him to score 80 per cent of his runs, boundaries in particular, towards his preferred on-side. They had targeted the body and the stumps all day long, and successfully so, prior to the Australian No.8's arrival and it was just that Coulter-Nile was seeing the ball better than any of his teammates had managed to earlier. It was also a case of the West Indian pacers' inexperience and inability respectively to produce the fire and brimstone penetration in their latter spells. While Thomas is still very new to the international game, Cottrell and Russell haven't played consistent 50-over cricket of late, and aren't always used to late bursts after having been on the field for a better part of three hours. And Coulter-Nile, and Smith to a smaller extent, made the most of it.
It wasn't with the ball that the West Indians lost the plot though. The last 15 overs of the Australian innings only lost them the momentum, not the game. There's perhaps, never been a team more proficient at taking advantage of momentum in a game than the Australians.
But despite having dismissed Evin Lewis and Gayle - after two referrals went his way and the umpire failed to notice Mitchell Starc over-stepping the line by a significant margin the ball prior to the opener's departure - Australia never seemed on top. They were up against a West Indian batting line-up that in the absence of Darren Bravo resembled a demolition derby with the prolific Shai Hope providing cruise control. And like they did with the ball up-front, it was the West Indies who held sway for a majority of their innings as Hope, Nicholas Pooran and Shimron Hetmyer kept the Aussies at bay. At the halfway stage, the West Indies needed 156 runs off 150 balls with Russell still to come.
It's easy to look at the West Indies batting line-up and get carried away with their exploits in chasing and mowing down mega-massive totals in T20 league cricket around the world. The fact is they haven't done the same in this format of the game with any regularity.
For the record, only on 7 occasions in their 799 ODIs before Thursday had the West Indies successfully chased a total of 289 or more. Russell had only batted twice before Thursday in a successful run-chase of any denomination - one of them being an unbeaten 66 in a famous win over South Africa at Port Elizabeth a few days prior to the last World Cup in 2015. And the longer the format of cricket, the more your ratio of success tends towards game awareness rather than pure skills. And the more time you have in a cricket match, the more it becomes prudent to pick your moment than focus on creating it.
As well as Australia bowled with the old ball, it was the West Indians' lack or limitation in knowing when to pick their moments that ended up costing them the game. There was the untimely run-out of Shimron Hetmyer when Shai Hope and he had managed to steady the ship. Then Hope's decision to play an expansive shot of the last ball of Starc's spell, followed by Russell's slightly callous attempt at bravado in taking on Australia's best bowler, especially after he'd slammed Adam Zampa for two sixes in the previous over and had the prospect of facing Coulter-Nile and Marcus Stoinis.
When Australia went for the jugular by holding back two Stoinis's overs and letting Pat Cummins and Starc loose on Holder and Brathwaite, it was prudent that the two tall Bajans see out their threat and call their opponents' bluff. Instead they both fell trying to attack Starc within the space of three balls, and thereby leaving Stoinis the slightly more comfortable task of closing out the game against Ashley Nurse and the tail.
With the tournament still very much in its nascent stages though, the crown will remain up for grabs for well over a month. On Thursday, the West Indies and Australia showed it's still very much worth fighting for, regardless of whether they're contenders or defenders.
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