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Sticky wickets favour cautious Australia as philosophies collide at T20 World Cup | Geoff Lemon
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Sticky wickets favour cautious Australia as philosophies collide at T20 World Cup | Geoff Lemon

Contemporary T20 cricket is a place of warring philosophies. On the one hand we have those maintaining a degree of conservatism, building scores that may be defendable, relying on probability to return wins more often than not. On the other, the popular attitude of going full tilt at the largest score possible, a tactic that leaves teams short when they get it wrong but invulnerable when they get it right.

When caution fails, it looks hopelessly outdated, like some of the efforts from the Lucknow team featuring Marcus Stoinis during the most recent season of the Indian Premier League. When caution succeeds it can look like prescient genius, like Stoinis saving Australia from an unexpected predicament against Oman to start their T20 World Cup campaign.

Those warring philosophies have warring contexts in which to see them play out. From the fast, flat strips and the substitute players of India’s domestic league that drove scores ever upward until passing 200 became routine, to competitive totals half that size on the slow and sticky pitches that have been on display across the World Cup grounds of the Caribbean and New York.

Anticipating these conditions, it was caution that Australia’s selectors went with on a couple of fronts. First by sticking with Stoinis in the squad and then the XI, valuing his experience and likelihood of staying calm, over a modest T20 batting record for Australia that until last match had yielded only two half-centuries in a career of 49 innings. Second was keeping the faith with David Warner opening the batting, the other player with Stoinis who negotiated a difficult match with patience.

It’s amusing seeing Warner as the safe option, given that he started his international career as a T20 prodigy whose batting was seen as the height of explosiveness. But as his age ticked into his 30s, Warner refashioned himself into a safer and more reliable 20-over machine. His long IPL seasons have been spent placing a premium on finding gaps and running twos more than trying to lash every ball.

Jake Fraser-McGurk now occupies the space of young tyro with a light-speed strike rate, and was a tempting option for selectors to include before eventually settling for picking him as a travelling reserve. His IPL was incredible but he would have struggled to play that way on the stop-start surface that was Queens Park Oval under lights.

Instead, Warner was able to adapt his game early when the conditions became clear. Australia picked up one boundary in each of the opening eight overs, but despite that struggled to go faster than a run a ball, finding it nearly impossible to use the other deliveries to rotate strike. Travis Head fell early, and a mid-pitch meeting between Warner and captain Mitchell Marsh appeared to be an agreement to just proceed at six per over, and hope for a few late strikes to lift the score. Warner played to the plan on his way to a half-century.

From the ninth over, when Marsh and Glenn Maxwell fell to Mehran Khan from consecutive balls, Stoinis battled more than anyone, reaching nine from 14 balls, tied in knots by the leg-spin of Aqib Ilyas. His edge was beaten multiple times, and a tough edge dropped by the keeper.

Instead of giving his wicket away, Stoinis kept biding his time, thinking that a good match-up would come. When it did, via the fuller length of Mehran’s last over, Stoinis struck a six that knocked the long-off fielder backwards into the rope, then cleared that rope three more times in the over. The over all but decided the match, charging on to 67 from 36 balls when nobody else could middle a shot. There was luck involved, but also a player resisting desperation.

As for Oman, their chance slipped away in the space of one ball, Ayaan Khan’s fall backwards after taking a catch that cost six runs. Were it a wicket, the score would have been 82-4, with Australia going at 5.7 an over, and Tim David and Matthew Wade to come in as designated hitters in an environment that did not suit the pursuit.

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Who knows what might have come – perhaps a target low enough to chase, rather than an eventual 164 that Oman could not get near. The way that Cricket Australia administrators structure their calendar, Oman may never again get the chance to play Australia, but even if many more matches take place, Oman may never get a better chance to win.

But Australian teams don’t slip on banana peels. Where other major teams have dropped surprise losses over the years, especially at World Cups, Australia have never lost to a team outside the nine Test-playing opponents. Their worst results in all limited-overs matches combined are nine losses out of 57 against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

They will have two more unfamiliar opponents in this pool stage: an impressive Scottish outfit and a rapidly improving Namibia. Win both of those games and the result against arch-rivals England wouldn’t matter. But for England it does, after a washout against Scotland, and that game comes next in Group B on Saturday local time.

On the same difficult ground, Australia will again have to assess their chosen method, against a team used to the contrary modern way of going foot to the floor at all times. England will have to figure that out too, having not yet had a chance to bat in the tournament. Once more, in the middle, the tension between caution and careening will be played out live.

Source: theguardian.com