The ball that got rid of the well-set Ben Stokes is the stuff that batsmen’s nightmares are made of.
England was in a fair bit of trouble already. But Stokes had been a thorn in Australia’s side... scoring runs, guiding the lower order, acting as the glue that was keeping the home side in the chase. The Aussies were still in control of the game but the left-hander was obviously the key.
He was England’s last hope.
So Aaron Finch threw the ball to his main wicket-taker... up stepped Mitchell Starc. The left-armer has always been a streaky bowler and he was clearly feeling it on Tuesday.
It was the last ball of the 37th over. Starc had been taken for four runs off the earlier five balls. But even then he was bringing the heat – all the deliveries had been clocked over 140 km/h... 143, 146, 148, 150, 143. It was quick, the batsmen knew they couldn’t afford to blink.
Then, the last ball happened. The batsmen were alert but it happened anyway.
Starc delivered the ball with his high-arm action, it started in the channel outside the batsman’s off-stump and then tailed in late. Stokes, batting on 89, tried to bring his bat down in time but even before he could do that, the ball was past him and crashed into the sumps. His bat instead hit just air and the ground and popped out of his hands.
Stokes’ reaction was one of shock and when he seemed to regain his focus, the bat was on the ground and his stumps had been shattered. He kicked the bat in disgust... the match was done.
The delivery was well nigh unplayable and that is what Starc can do when he finds a rhythm and the motivation to charge in without a worry on his mind. He now has 19 wickets in the tournament – the most among the bowlers – and looks good for plenty more.
Starc, as a rule, attacks the stumps all the time and that means when he gets it wrong, he can go for runs. Conversely, when he gets it right, he gets wickets.
The signs have been there all tournament but perhaps the old rivals, England, seemed to perk him up even more. As good as the Stokes dismissal was, Joe Root’s wicket was perhaps even more important.
Root has been the glue of this England batting line-up made up of big-hitters. He takes the singles, he rotates the strike and keeps the batsmen sane for as long as possible. But on Tuesday, Starc got one to move back into the right-hander.
Root wasn’t too sure which way the ball was going to go and shaped to play a drive but got caught on the crease. He walked, not even waiting for the DRS timer to run out. Starc had struck a major blow.
Then, England skipper Eoin Morgan walked in and as many noticed, he seemed to not want the fight. Former England skipper Kevin Pietersen mentioned it on Twitter, Sunil Gavaskar mentioned it post the game on television too.
The left-hander seemed to move away from the ball as if he wanted no part of it. With Starc steaming in and England two wickets down, one could have expected the skipper to do what he had... to stay at the wicket. Instead, with his feet going nowhere and all three stumps visible, he attempted a lazy waft.
The over ended but Morgan’s stay ended in Starc’s next over. The England skipper looked to counter-attack when perhaps it would have made more sense to try and weather the storm with good old-fashioned defence. A short ball was onto him and beat him for pace, he still attempted the pull shot and got the top edge which was taken by Pat Cummins at fine leg.
It was Starc at his intimidating best and even though Morgan refuted the charge in the press conference after the game, we all saw what we saw. Just six overs into the innings, England were 26/3 and it was always going to be an uphill climb after that.
Aaron Finch was adjudged the player of the match but that award could have so easily gone to Jason Behrendorff , who claimed his first five-wicket haul in ODIs. But the wickets Starc took [Root, Morgan and Stokes] knocked the stuffing out of England and make his claim to the award hard to ignore.
Australia started the World Cup as a team with pedigree but not a great record over the last two years. But their batting has started to come together. They still need to figure out how to get rid of the batting collapses but with the openers firing, they do put up a decent total on board. Now, they seem to have found the right balance in their bowling too.
Cummins gives them control, Behrendorff is a better bowling option than Nathan Coulter-Nile, Lyon brings in more consistency, Stoinis and Maxwell give them more options. But the cherry on top has to be the way Starc has come alive in the tournament. It gives Australia a deadly edge and come the semi-finals, it might be the difference between victory and defeat.