Australia hastened slowly to a series-squaring one-day international victory over Sri Lanka in Hobart on the back of Xavier Doherty’s slow left-arm spin and, earlier, Phil Hughes’ painstakingly patient century.
Chasing 248 for victory on a low, slow Bellerive wicket, the visitors were brought undone by a wonderful spell from Doherty who, in the space of five tantalising overs, claimed 3-7 to put Australia on the road to an eventual 32-run victory.
Doherty came into this match not having taken a wicket in the series but he ripped the heart out of the Sri Lankan innings by removing three of the dangermen, Mahela Jayawardene (38 off 39), Lahiru Thirimanne (1 off 10) and Dinesh Chandimal (6 off 19).
And with Moises Henriques chipping in with the wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan, caught behind shortly after bringing up his 7000th ODI run for a most un-Dilshan-like 19 off 48, Sri Lanka quickly slipped from a commanding 0-57 to a perilous 4-77.
From there, the Australians applied the stranglehold, squeezing the batsmen so hard the required run-rate remorselessly rose, from six an over to seven, and eventually to 10.
A blazing run-a-ball sixth-wicket stand of 79 between Jeevan Mendis (26) and Sri Lanka’s captain-in-waiting Angelo Mathews (67) momentarily raised the pulses of the fielding side but then Henriques stepped up to make his first meaningful contribution to the Australian side in his fifth ODI.
He clean bowled a charging Mendis and then followed up by re-arranging Thisara Perera’s stumps to finish with his career-best figures of 3-32 and when Mitchell Johnson chipped in to remove Mathews, the game Sri Lankans finally ran out of fight.
In terms of his actual batting, Hughes began slowly and then accelerated against Sri Lanka in Hobart but, from a big picture perspective, few cricketers have ever started quite as quickly as the precocious left-hander.
Hughes, who had two Test centuries to his credit before his international career was four innings old in 2009, with a 75 thrown in for good measure, has set almost as blistering a pace with his curiously delayed one-day international career, scoring his second ton in only his fifth match for Australia.
His 138 off 154 balls – a lot better strike-rate than he looked like finishing with mid-knock – enabled Australia to compile a competitive 5-247 on a slowish Bellerive wicket.
Coming on top of his 112 on debut against Sri Lanka in Melbourne on January 11 – the first one-day century on debut ever by an Australian – Hughes now has a second significant batting record to his credit as the fastest Australian to two ODI centuries, bettering Steve Smith by four matches. At the other end of the scale, Steve Waugh had 265 one-dayers and nearly 4000 runs behind him before he scored his second century in the 50-overs format of the game.
Hughes could scarcely have produced a timelier innings, with Australia down 2-1 against the visitors and needing to win this match to square the series, and with batting mainstay Michael Clarke missing with an injured ankle that mercifully is not broken. Still, further scans will be needed to clearly establish the full extent of the Australian captain’s problem.
Clarke’s absence prompted a change in the batting order, with Hughes dropping down to No 3 from opener, where he has scored 3, 3 and 1 in his most recent visits to the middle.
That didn’t offer him much of a respite with Dave Warner lasting only 18 balls before he was bowled for 10, beaten all ends up by part-time spinner Tillakaratne Dilshan, who fully vindicated Mahela Jayawardene’s bold decision to open the bowling with him by taking 1-22 from his seven overs.
Still, the change of position did bring Hughes a welcome change of luck. On 20, he miscued an attempted pull shot from Angelo Mathews and watched, first with dismay, then with delight, as the ball rolled back onto his stumps but did not dislodge the bails.
Some batsmen might have taken that as a sign that the cricketing gods had taken an early Australia Day break and that the moment was ripe to flay the bowling. Not Hughes, at least not until the moment to attack was due.
“I was patient,” Hughes admitted afterwards to Channel Nine.
“I found it quite tough through the middle. But you can always catch up in one-day cricket.”
Catch up he did. After taking 100 balls to score his first 60, he peeled off his next 78 runs from only 54 deliveries, while all around him batsmen rose and fell with alarming regularity.
Converted opener Matthew Wade had looked imposing in scoring 23 off 28 before he fell, yet again, to an odd piece of shot selection, trying to late cut a fullish delivery from Nuwan Kulasakera.
David Hussey, too, looked to have done all the hard work when, on 34, he set off for a quick single believing he had bounced a squeeze shot over the bowler’s head only for Thisara Perera to pluck the ball out of the air and throw down his wicket. (The Australian)