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February 11, 2007
That loss was compounded four days later by New Zealand's facile victory at the WACA, by which stage the tournament obituarists were in full flow. England were rock-bottom of the CB Series standings with one win in six outings, Australia were out of sight with an unblemished record. "Bring the boys back home," was the universal opinion - because there was no more humiliation that the nation, supporters and representatives, could endure.
Funnily enough, it was true. There was no more humiliation. There was simply no further for England to fall. The nadir had been located and the long march to respectability began from the moment the team arrived at Sydney on the first day of February, knowing that victory and only victory would provide any sort of succour for their season. The burden of expectation had vanished, and so too did the fear of failure, because failure had been embraced like a long-lost lover.
And so it has come to pass that England have won the CB Series, with a run of four wins out of four and a clean-sweep in the finals! The irony was undoubtedly lost on an Australian nation that tuned out of the live broadcast the moment the rain-assisted victory had been announced. That attitude was matched by a sizeable Sydney crowd, which was streaming for the exit long before the final ball had been bowled. The presentations eventually took place in a dank cellar in the bowels of the Bradman Stand, away from both the elements and the small knot of English fans whose unstinting support earned them the heartfelt and humble gratitude of Andrew Flintoff, as he led a sheepish lap of honour at the end of the match.
When the shock has dissipated, however, it might eventually be recognised that the CB Series received the champions it deserved. This tournament is - without taking anything away from an England team who, until two days ago, loathed it as much as the average observer - a bloated, unloved, uncompetitive bout of Antipodean hopscotch; an all-Australian love-in with no purpose whatsoever, except to parade the all-conquering champions to all corners of an adoring victory-obsessed nation.
It is not the Ashes. Let's make that abundantly clear. Yesterday, in a premonition of impending embarrassment, Melbourne's The Age newspaper made a mockery of the CB Series trophy, an avant-garde swish of stainless steel that is every bit as overblown as the tournament it represents. It suggested four alternative uses - a skateboard ramp, an Ikea chair, a whale hook and a catching cradle, none of which were far-fetched. But after the tour they have endured, England will doubtless demand it receives the first-class treatment that Virgin Atlantic recently threatened to withdraw from their premiere client, Mr Urn, A.
England will celebrate tonight's win with all the gusto that an Andrew Flintoff-led side can muster, and quite rightly so - for Flintoff especially, whose captaincy has been so lampooned, it is a wonderful and unexpected accolade. He has become the first England captain to win any overseas one-day competition since Adam Hollioake in Sharjah in 1997-98, and the first in Australia since Gatting's treble-winning Ashes tourists, twenty years ago to the day.
But, in a single stroke of inspiration, this team has exposed the fundamental absurdity of not only the CB Series, but of every single one of international cricket's so-called blue-riband tournaments. Unwittingly, I am sure, England produced a parody of a performance when there was nothing but (spurious) pride at stake, then raised their game when the bauble itself was up for grabs. Alas, there is just as much flab in all such tournaments.
Ridiculous as it seems, this was a victory for England's big-match mentality, epitomised by Paul Collingwood, for whom no praise at the moment is sufficient. Australia - whose coach, John Buchanan, had bemoaned their lack of serious match practice and consequently stretched their workload off the field instead - were instead guilty of getting too cute with the game. It's not a mistake they'll make again in a hurry.
Perhaps the final word, however, should go to the innocent bystanders who have been bewildered by the length of time it has taken for England's battered cricketers to get the hell out of Oz. A colleague of my wife's, for instance, has been taking a polite interest in the events of the tour, and on Friday, she noticed that - for some reason - the ripple of excitement that accompanied England's rare victory was a little more feverish than usual.
Knowing that the Ashes had been and gone, and that the one-dayers had been a disaster, she surmised quite reasonably that this must be something entirely different. "Have England just won the World Cup then?" she asked. No, not yet. But don't forget to ask again in another quarter of a year's time, after another nine qualifying matches against every conceivable opponent from Canada to Cambodia. If surrounded by enough mediocrity, England could reach the semi-finals with a similarly guileless performance, and then it will be a case of stringing together two wins out of two.
They could, alternatively, take such confidence from this performance that they rampage past all-comers and get to the knock-outs under entirely their own steam. But either route would be equally effective. Sadly, must-win one-day matches such as these are a genuine rarity in this day and age.
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