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Australia vs England: Stokes searching for rhythm as England look to seal whitewash
The debate around the role of Stokes is gathering momentum ahead of the third T20, which will be shown exclusively live on BT Sport.
The most pleasing aspect of England’s pre-World Cup series victory over Australia was their death bowling, an area they couldn’t get quite right in previous tournaments.
The manner in which the bowlers held their nerve, defending totals of 208 in Perth and 178 in Canberra, was impressive as they build momentum ahead of their opener against Afghanistan.
England worked themselves into dominant positions in 2016 in India and 2021 in the UAE before falling at the final hurdle, making these successive wins over holders Australia when bowling last particularly significant with days to go until their tournament begins.
Sam Curran (2-35) was exceptional again, picking up the wickets of Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis and Tim David to keep the hosts in check when they were threatening to pull clear.
The inspired 24-year-old also bowled the last over in the first match, dismissing Matthew Wade and Nathan Ellis in successive balls when Australia required 16.
His emergence as a genuine death bowling option is a huge bonus for England who were probably expecting him to play a bit-part role in the tournament.
Dawid Malan also starred with the bat as England won by eight runs to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series, scoring 82 from 49 deliveries.
It was another decisive contribution from England’s highest ranked batter in the format after they were reduced to 54-4 in Canberra.
The return of Australia’s frontline bowling attack as well as explosive all-rounder Glenn Maxwell was likely to provide a tougher test for England and so it proved in the early stages, with Jos Buttler, Alex Hales, Ben Stokes and Harry Brook all falling cheaply.
But Malan, who was pushed down the order to seven in the first match, anchored the innings masterfully and was ably supported by Moeen Ali who smashed 44 from 27 balls. The pair shared a stand of 92 to propel them to 178, a total that looked unlikely at the halfway stage.
It was another useful outing for Matthew Mott’s side but pressure is beginning to build on Stokes after another concerning display with the bat.
The Test skipper played his first T20 international since March 2021 in the series opener when he made nine and he again looked unconvincing in his innings of seven in Canberra before he was bowled by Adam Zampa.
His sheer force of personality is difficult to overlook, and his influence goes beyond his batting. He bowled two useful overs, conceding 10 runs and produced a magical boundary save to deny Mitchell Marsh a near-certain six.
He is still likely to line-up in England’s opener, but all eyes will be on his batting in the final match of the series on Friday with time running out to play his way back into form.
Liam Livingstone is targeting the final warm-up match against Pakistan to make his return from injury, and he is expected to come straight back into the side if he proves his fitness.
The battle between Hales and Phil Salt to open the batting was a major subplot before the series. The Nottinghamshire batter followed up a blistering 84 in the first match with four in the second and will be looking to end the debate with another score of note on Friday.
Captain Buttler praised Malan and Curran after sealing the series victory. “That was a really satisfying win, losing the toss again and setting a target,” he told BT Sport.
“We showed great character and Malan played really well. He has been really consistent and has done it against every attack around the world.
“He’s played some good innings, and this was extra special after getting his 50th cap before the game.”
“Curran is one of these bowlers who wants to be in the thick of it in those big moments. We needed to get Tim David out to win the game, he’s got great power and Sam did that for us.”
Australia brought back the big guns in Canberra, largely returning to the tried and tested formula that got them over the line in Dubai last November.
One departure saw Mitchell Starc held back from new ball duties for just the third time in his international T20 career and the first since 2014. The move appeared to pay off when Cummins removed Buttler but left-armer Starc was unusually expensive in the middle overs.
Captain Aaron Finch opened after dropping himself down the order in the preceding matches, making a run a ball 13. Maxwell also fell for eight meaning he has made only 16 runs in this last six matches.
Mitchell Marsh and Tim David both made meaningful contributions with the bat, but they couldn’t see Australia over the line in a close encounter where fielding was ultimately the difference.
“We were really poor - sloppy, dropped chances,” said Finch. “Especially when we took four wickets in the first 10, if we get them five or six down, we make it easier for ourselves.”
Their side remains largely settled ahead of the defence of their title, with the only major question mark around a misfiring batting order, with Steve Smith waiting in the wings.
England will continue to manage their resources, with the form of Stokes and the make-up of the bowling attack likely to be the prevailing narratives as they target a rare series whitewash in Australia.
Watch the third T20 between Australia and England from 8.45am on Friday on BT Sport 1.