England 293 (Malan 63, Stoneman 61, Fallins 5-73) and 207 (Bairstow 61*, Stoneman 51, Milenko 5-34) beat Cricket Australia XI 233 (Paine 52, Crane 3-78, Anderson 2-30) and 75 (Woakes 4-17, Anderson 3-12, Overton 3-15) by 192 runs
Those England supporters waking on a chilly November morning and checking the scores from Down Under might well feel encouraged by confirmation of a crushing victory in Adelaide.
And, to some extent, that is fair enough. It took just half-an-hour to polish off the CA XI on the final day in Adelaide and the eventual margin – 192 runs – does not lie: there was a chasm of quality between these sides.
But some context is required. Regular observers of Ashes tours rated this CA XI side the weakest opposition England had faced in a first-class game here since the Packer years in the late 1970s. That England face them again in Townsville next week means they will face a sharp step-up in class – and pace – when they reach Brisbane. Whether that is by design or accident is largely irrelevant but the toughest opposition they will face before Brisbane will be the crocodiles they encounter when they visit a wildlife sanctuary on Monday.
The most encouraging aspect of this match for England was the performance of their bowlers. Despite the epidemic of injuries – it now transpires that Liam Plunkett has a minor hamstring strain and was not deemed fit for a call-up as cover – the England attack is looking good. James Anderson and Chris Woakes are bowling at something approaching their best and Craig Overton is improving by the spell. He is not especially fast, but his height helps him generate steep bounce and he is moving the ball both ways.
He did his chances of selection no harm at all here. He struck with his sixth delivery of the day – Matthew Short bowled off the inside edge as he attempted to slog a length ball – and, after hitting Daniel Fallins on the helmet with a bouncer, saw Anderson polish off the tail. The CA XI added only five to their overnight total.
The batting is less convincing. Against a modest attack, none of their batsmen could manage more than 63 runs in an innings and Ryan Harris, coach of the CA team in this match, was attempting no psychological gamesmanship when he described it as “vulnerable” after the match. “Their batting is vulnerable, absolutely,” he said. “Especially with no Ben Stokes at six or seven.”
Nobody looks further from form than Alastair Cook. And, given the inexperience of England’s batting line-up, that is a concern. But Cook has looked poor before only to respond with a mountain of runs. It may be telling that the last time he looked this scratchy was in 2010. Just before he scored 766 runs in an Ashes series. He has proved himself so many times; it would be madness to discount him now.
The other area England have some concerns is the length of their tail. While Overton has some pedigree with the bat – despite failing to register a half-century during the 2017 county season – he recorded a pair in this game. While it would be unreasonable to expect too much of a No. 9 – his likely batting position – England have become accustomed to being bailed out by their lower middle-order and, given the on-going fragility of their top-order, they could do with similar resistance in this series.
“It hasn’t quite gone to plan,” Overton said sheepishly after the match. “I know I need to improve my batting and it’s something I’m working on.”
Where does all this leave England? They depart for Townsville on Sunday with a good idea of the team for the first Test. While Jake Ball has not, at this stage, been ruled out of contention, he is unlikely to play in Townsville and will, therefore, be short of bowling ahead of the Test series. Overton, therefore, is likely to win selection as fourth seamer.
Meanwhile Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad both bowled in the middle once the match finished. They will play in Townsville next week and, barring injury, will also play in the first Test. James Vince will bat at No. 3 – one of the great gambles of modern selections – with Dawid Malan looking quietly impressive – and far more elegant and comfortable than he did in England – at No. 5. It is not the strongest team England have brought to Australia, but they’re not playing the strongest opposition, either.
Given any help from conditions, this England attack is dangerous. On flat surfaces, the sort they encountered at Lord’s and The Oval in 2015, they may struggle to make inroads. But if Australia leave a little extra grass on pitches in the belief it will help their own attack, it may open the door for England. The fact that the Adelaide Test is to be played under lights and with a pink ball would appear to be to England’s advantage.
The other area they can exploit is Australia’s overwhelming desire to not just beat them but destroy them. Just as Moeen Ali benefitted from Australia’s over-aggressive approach against him at Cardiff in 2015 – David Warner and Steve Smith attempted to hit him out of the attack rather than milking him – so the whole of England’s attack will look to prey on that impatience during this series. Australia are favourites, but not, perhaps, by the margin they might have you believe.