Tense finish hides dour contest
Australia 260 for 5 (Ferguson 71*, Collingwood 2-47) beat England 256 for 8 (Bopara 49, Shah 40, Johnson 3-24) by 4 runs
Live scorecard and ball-by-ball details
The ECB has taken it upon itself to destroy 50-over cricket, and it really does have a point. For 92 out of 100 overs, this was as awful as any international contest can be. But then suddenly, after six hours of ennui, the contest blazed into life under the Oval floodlights, as Luke Wright and Adil Rashid slashed and carved England to within a six-hit of an incredible and scarcely merited victory. In the end, however, it was left to Ryan Sidebottom to complete the heist by smashing Nathan Bracken out of the ground, but his swing-from-the-hip merely dribbled out to mid-off. And though it may be churlish to say it, the wave of anticlimax that swept the ground was entirely fitting.
Australia duly won by four runs, their stodgy innings of 260 for 5 proving sufficient to overcome England's clumsy run-chase on a pitch hewn from the finest suet. Callum Ferguson's career-best 71 not out was the decisive innings of the day; Mitchell Johnson's 3 for 24 were the stand-out figures. But until Wright's uncompromising 38 from 27 balls (which ended when he was run out off a no-ball), Owais Shah's dismissal was set to be the most apt summary of the contest. He reached 40 from 48 balls before treading on his stumps while setting off for a single, and as he departed at 161 for 4 in the 38th over, so England's hopes appeared to go with him.
Forget all the criticism that flew in Surrey's direction for the surface they served up for last month's Ashes decider. At least it could be said that that track had been designed with entertainment in mind. This, on the other hand, was designed for cricketing euthanasia. The slow and low surface encouraged neither attacking bowling nor calculated strokeplay, and it wasn't until desperation set in with 82 runs needed from 48 balls that the slogging began and the murmur in the crowd rose even an octave above cocktail party level. Briefly, it was as if we were back at the ICC World Twenty20. And maybe that is the point.
Australia were made to flap in those closing overs. Michael Clarke, standing in as captain for the resting Ricky Ponting, juggled his field and his bowlers in equal measure, but - as had been the case all through the day - the extra pace of the seamers proved to be the only surefire way of getting the ball off the square. Bracken's final two overs were swiped for 23, while Brett Lee, who produced an energetic new-ball burst to account for England's captain, Andrew Strauss, was edged through third man for two fours from consecutive deliveries to reduce England's requirement from 27 in 12 balls to 19 in 10. But 13 from the final over proved to be beyond the scope even of the nerveless Rashid, who pulled a handsome four through square leg to raise the crowd's hopes, but was ultimately stranded at the wrong end on 31 not out.
Earlier, Rashid had been the pick of England's bowlers as well, conceding 37 runs in ten overs of flighty and accurate legspinners. He joined forces with Paul Collingwood's offcutters to stymie Australia's run-rate, after Shane Watson and Cameron White had overcome the early loss of Tim Paine to add 82 in 15.5 overs for the second wicket. A brace of run-outs did not help their cause, least of all that of White, who had just posted his maiden ODI half-century when he was beaten by a bullet throw from the deep by Graeme Swann that Matt Prior gathered well in front of the stumps.
That left all eyes on the captain, Clarke, whose one-day form has been under some scrutiny of late, as the youthful dasher has given way to a more watchful - and consequently stodgy - cricketer. His 45 from 72 balls was a case in point. His strokeplay was as elegant as ever, but he continually picked out the fielders as he was restricted to just three fours in his innings, and having dallied until the 43rd over to call for Australia's batting powerplay, he was caught slashing to point off Collingwood two balls later.
Hussey, returning to the scene of his career-prolonging century two weeks ago, provided spirited support to Ferguson as Australia added 47 in five overs for the fifth wicket. But his cameo came to an end when Sidebottom yorked him for 20 from 15 balls, leaving James Hopes to partner Ferguson through the remaining 16 deliveries of the innings.
England's initial response was (with the exception of a skittish Strauss) cautious, as they waited for their scoring opportunities, and picked off just seven fours in the course of the first 25 overs. Ravi Bopara produced his most composed performance since the World Twenty20 to keep the chase on course, but the spinner, Nathan Hauritz, changed the tone of the innings when he had Bopara's partner, Prior, caught in the gully off a reverse sweep for 28. At the halfway mark of the chase, England had reached 102 for 2 in pursuit of 261, with Bopara unbeaten on 46 from 80 balls.
He was unable to make it to his half-century, however, as Hauritz dragged him out of his crease to be stumped for 49. Shah then started brightly by cracking two fours in a lone and exploratory over from Lee, but his running between the wickets - never a strong point - was an accident waiting to happen as Collingwood was sent sprawling for his crease twice in consecutive deliveries. In the end, he was forced so far back into his crease by Johnson that his heel demolished his leg stump, and that was the end of that.
Collingwood never found his timing - at least, not until he was roundly booed by a frustrated crowd for playing out two dot balls in a row midway through the 40th over. One delivery later, he absolutely lambasted a delivery that was fractionally short in length from Johnson, but Watson at midwicket timed his leap to perfection to intercept the shot. Collingwood was gone for 23 from 47 balls, and so too, it seemed, was the match. Wright and Rashid had other ideas, but their enterprising late efforts could not mask the paucity of the overall contest.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo