Australia were struggling at 70-odd for four but Fazeer Mohammed, a popular Caribbean radio commentator, here with the BBC, looked concerned. “Faz, surely, you should smile” was met with a wince. “They are building a partnership, West Indies need to close this out, else we would be struggling to chase,” he replied. A short while later, this writer ran into former West Indian pacer Colin Croft and he, too, shared similar sentiments. It seemed like unnecessary caution from the old faithful, but they obviously know their team better. The sentiment in the Caribbean section of the crowd in the stands was the same. “They got the fast men; we can be in trouble in the chase. This isn’t T20.”
As it turned out, all of them were proven right, with one more factor weighing the West Indies down: The Australians who refused to give up. Australianism is such an old trope, but it’s one cricketing cliché that never seems to go out of fashion. They should have been buried at 38 for 4; they stayed afloat courtesy Steve Smith and Alex Carey, the wicketkeeper batsman.
Again, they should have gone down after being reduced to 147 for 6 when Carey fell but Nathan Coulter-Nile dug in his heels. He didn’t just support Smith, he didn’t just push Australia towards a “decent” total, but he was hell-bent on dragging them towards 300.
Cracking under pressure
At the first instance of a real fightback, West Indies’ bowling began to wobble. They allowed Coulter-Nile to score 80% of his runs on the leg side. The lines went awry, the lengths began to suffer and Coulter-Nile started to make them pay. That’s why the old Caribbean watchers were a touch wary. That’s why they hadn’t shared the euphoria that swirled around when the West Indian pacers harassed the Australian top-order into submission. So much so that Sunil Gavaskar, here for Star Sports Hindi commentary, was not only ebullient on air with his raves for the pacers, he also sought out Michael Holding and Ian Bishop, on the world feed, to share his happiness at the way West Indies bowled.
There was enough reason for the smiles. At one point, Australia did look rattled. The moment that captured it best was when Usman Khawaja, who had been struck on the helmet twice, backed away from the stumps for a slog and was caught behind. Was he rattled? One asked Simon Helmot, an Australian batting coach based in Melbourne, and he went, “It didn’t look good, did it? But Uzzie is one of better players of the short ball we have. I reckon, he must have anticipated another short ball and probably thought he could counter-attack it with a cut over point or something. I wouldn’t say the Australians were vulnerable against the short ball but, yes, they did look uncomfortable,” Helmot said.
That they did. Aaron Finch doesn’t have the best technique to handle the moving ball and he feathered a delivery in the off-stump corridor form Oshane Thomas to the keeper. Then Sheldon Cottrell got one to kick up from back of a length and surprised David Warner, who went at it with a vertical bat — as opposed to a horizontal blade — and gave a straightforward chance at backward point. Cottrell then sorted out Glen Maxwell with a bouncer that was miscued straight up.
Even though the West Indian bowlers slipped up when Coulter-Nile stepped up, the chase would rankle them. Evin Lewis poked a regulation seam-up delivery angling across him and Chris Gayle survived through two DRS reversals, but the umpire missed a big no-ball from Mitchell Starc, and the subsequent ball (one that would have been a free-hit) trapped him lbw. Nicholas Pooran made a brisk 40 before Adam Zampa lulled him into a big hit, but it skewed off the outside edge to point.
So far, so good, despite those wickets. What would concern West Indies was what followed.
Pat Cummins, who had already bowled five overs in his first spell, returned in the 31st over. In all probability, he would bowl three overs as Australia would keep a couple from him for the end. What did Shai Hope, who had batted superbly until then to soak up the pressure, do? Off the last ball of Cummins’s 8th over, third of the spell, he tried to manufacture an aggressive shot against a full dipping delivery, and ended up scooping it to mid-on. West Indies were 190 for 5 from 35 overs and Cummins’ spell ended.
Then Starc, who had bowled six overs, came back in the 37th over —again, possibly for two. In his second over, off his fifth delivery (the fourth had been biffed to long-off boundary), Russell went for a big slog and skied the ball over backward point and Maxwell rushed back, steadied himself to take a very good catch to tilt the tables against West Indies, who were 216 for 6 and beginning to look vulnerable even as Starc’s spell ended.
Starc returned in the 46 th over with the equation reading 38 from 30. It took two balls for him to realise that Jason Holder, in midst of a fine captain’s knock, and Brathwaite seemed intent on defending him. And he slipped in a full toss — or so it seemed, but it was the squeezed-out slower one, and Brathwaite couldn’t control his attacking urges, went for a big hoick and was caught.
Now, much depended on Holder, but he lost his cool off the last ball of that Starc over. It was short and aimed at his ribcage and the tall man went for a swivel-pull but could only shovel it to short fine-leg fielder. Game over.
In the little big moments that mattered, West Indies lost their cool and as ever, Australia found a way to squeeze out of trouble.