A severely-weakened Australia were meant to be a soft touch in this one-day series and that appeared to be the case for large parts of this opening match before a spirited fightback with the ball made this far too close for comfort for England.
Eoin Morgan’s team may have ultimately chased down their target of 215 with 36 balls to spare but the fact they only sneaked home by three wickets in this low-scoring thriller tells its own story. What should have been a routine victory for the world’s No1 side was made interesting thanks to a collapse of 6-49 either side of a 115-run fourth-wicket partnership between Morgan and Joe Root.
The humiliating defeat against Scotland in Edinburgh last Sunday was largely down to poor bowling. What will worry Morgan and coach Trevor Bayliss about this performance is that it was their strongest suit – the batting – that let them down.
Still, England clung on – David Willey sealing victory with his side’s first six of the innings - and they head to Cardiff for Saturday’s second ODI with a 1-0 series lead and their No1-ranking still intact.
The build-up to this five-match series had been dominated by talk of ‘sandpaper-gate’ and Australia’s attempts at repairing their shattered reputation. There were even handshakes before play, an initiative of captain Tim Paine, to foster goodwill between the teams.
Not everyone got the memo. A marketing firm were handing out sandpaper versions of the four and six cards outside The Oval before the game. But in truth the anticipated hostile reaction from home fans towards the Australians did not materialise.
Initially England must have been surprised to find this new-look Australia so accommodating as they crumbled in the face of spin, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid taking five wickets between them to rip the heart out of Australia’s batting order as the tourists posted a distinctly below-par total of 214.
The visitors may have been missing their best five players in former captain Steve Smith and David Warner, the pair banned for their part in the Cape Town ball-tampering plot, plus fast bowlers Josh Hazelwood, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc. This, though, was a limp batting effort.
Little did the home crowd know England would follow suit once the chase began. Morgan and Root had come together after the early losses of Jason Roy, Alex Hales and Jason Roy had left their team wobbling on 38-3.
Morgan’s innings of 69 – his highest ODI score since last summer’s Champions Trophy encounter against Australia – during a century stand with Root stabilised things. But that pair fell either side of a brief Jos Buttler cameo, Root edging Billy Stanlake behind on 50 after Andrew Tye dismissed Morgan and England’s wicketkeeper.
It left the hosts 163 for six in the 32nd over, still 52 short of victory. Moeen, the man given England’s ‘finisher’ role, then followed up his loose dismissal against Scotland last weekend with another gift here, slogging debutant Michael Neser to deep midwicket in the 39th over of the chase to give Australia renewed hope of a remarkable win.
With 18 runs needed, it was left to Willey, who batted coolly to finish unbeaten on 35, and Plunkett to get their team over the line. England were in total control of this contest at halfway after they were rewarded for sticking with the same attack that was so badly exposed in Edinburgh on Sunday.
Willey got the ball rolling when he had Travis Head caught behind. Aaron Finch followed, slashing Moeen to short third man. That begun a collapse of four for 43 against spin as Moeen picked up the further wickets of Shaun Marsh, and Paine within 26 balls before Rashid removed Marcus Stoinis.
It left Australia rocking on 90 for five in the 20th over of their innings and only an 84-run stand between Glenn Maxwell and Ashton Agar got the tourists up to some kind of respectability. Maxwell made a measured 62 from 64 balls before he was caught at the deep square leg boundary off Plunkett’s bowling.
Agar, picked here in place of fellow spinner Nathan Lyon on the strength of his batting, made 40 before being trapped lbw by Rashid. Both England spinners were excellent, Moeen ending with three for 43 from his ten overs and Rashid two for 36. Plunkett also picked up three for 42, helping to polish off the tail as Australia failed to bat out three overs of their innings.
The target of 215 should not have troubled England. That it did will give Australia hope they are not out of this series just yet.