Oh, England. So close. But still so very, very far away. There have been precious few moments of grace for England's cricketers over the past 11 weeks and they were denied one at the Gabba in the most agonising of circumstances as Alastair Cook and his team found a new and yet more painful way to lose a cricket match, snatching ignominious defeat from the jaws of what would have been a first international victory after 84 days of this traumatic tour.
In the event, Australia won the second one-day international by one wicket after a breathtaking long-range finish to steal a match that looked set in England's favour, with Australia on 244 for nine and still needing 57 to win. Spurred on by a pyrotechnic century by Eoin Morgan, England's total of 300 had looked a significant step towards erasing the distant prospect of a multi-format Australian summer whitewash. Instead, England were simply blown away by a superb match-winning innings of 69 from 47 balls by James Faulkner, who hit five sixes, all of them off Ben Stokes, and towards the end reeled in the total with a sense of gathering inevitability.
If Faulkner produced a superb finisher’s innings, it must also be said that England’s bowling was callow and Cook’s captaincy flat at vital moments. It was not possible to discover the reasons why Chris Jordan, who had bowled with pace and control with the new ball, did not return at the death because Cook failed to appear afterwards to discuss the defeat. Either way, it was a fateful decision: Stokes, who had just been hit for three sixes by Faulkner, went for two more in the crucial penultimate over, attempting to bowl full at the stumps but instead producing an eminently hittable good length.
These are really details though. The larger picture is that England conceded a record total on this ground to lose to a team that was nine wickets down, with the finish all but out of sight. There are defeats and there are defeats. England are only 2-0 down in this series, having played well here right up until the final 10 overs, when all the old unscabbed wounds were gouged open once again by the aggression of Faulkner’s batting. They will find it desperately hard to lift themselves after this.
If there was an element of farce to the final knockings, there was also something a little jarring about Eoin Morgan’s insistence afterwards that England would “take the positives” from their seventh consecutive defeat on tour. Cook, too, was defiantly upbeat when he spoke to the TV cameras. “When we look at it tomorrow morning in the cold light of day, it was an astonishing innings that beat us,” he said. “I’m proud of the way we got stuck in but little things needed to go our way and they didn’t.”
England had won the toss and batted first on a hot, humid day and played an unchanged team, leaving themselves again light on bowling without a front-line spinner. It felt, as every occasion does these days, as if it was a huge occasion for Cook as he walked out to open the innings.
There were signs of improvement too as Cook and Ian Bell set about constructing that much-debated platform, reaching 57 without loss before Cook was caught and bowled driving stiffly at Glenn Maxwell’s second ball. Root spared himself the ignominy of another prolonged and painful innings by producing instead a short and painful innings, before falling lbw playing neither forward nor back to the newly fresh-faced Mitchell Johnson. His last seven innings have produced 2, 1, 3, 24, 15, 4 and 19 runs.
Gary Ballance was stumped prodding for nine, Bell was run out after playing nicely for 68, and Ravi Bopara clipped straight to midwicket. At which point England were 178 for 5 off 37.1 overs and in a familiar fug of reverse-momentum. Enter Morgan and Jos Buttler, who seemed to be playing another game to the rest of England's batsmen, with the guile to find the gaps and power in reserve to clear the ropes.
They produced a delightfully brutal partnership of 113 off 11.2 overs, spurred by an abrupt acceleration that resulted in Morgan moving from 55 to 102 in the space of 37 balls, at one point hitting five sixes in 13 balls and reaching his hundred with a dinky little ramp over the keeper off Nathan Coulter-Nile. It was Morgan’s sixth ODI century, coming off 94 balls, with six sixes and four fours, an innings of precision-engineered violence by a man entirely in control of his game.
England finished on 300, an excellent total batting first, that looked even better when Jordan and Root both took two wickets as Australia subsided to 122 for five after 23 overs. At which point Glenn Maxwell emerged, just the kind of brash, aggressive cricketer to bring all of England’s old doubts flooding back. Here he reverse-lapped Root for three consecutive fours and got to his 50 off 37 balls before Bresnan removed him and Brad Haddin in the same over.
Still Australia failed to fold as Faulkner mixed scampered twos with the odd clouted six to creep ever closer as England bowled too full or too short. With 25 runs needed off the last two overs, the third and fourth balls of Stokes’ penultimate over all but sealed the game. Both were length balls and both were hauled massively over midwicket for six by Faulkner. Bresnan took the last over with 12 required. The first was a short slower ball edged by Faulkner over Buttler’s head for four. The second was another short slower ball thrashed through cow corner. The third was full and driven through cover to spark wild, if rather familiar scenes of Aussie joy.
England looked drained, as well they might. A team that can lose a game of cricket in this manner has good reason to fear the last three weeks of a definitively wretched tour.