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September 20, 2009
England being England, they still managed to make a meal of their chase of 177 to win, slumping from 106 for 0 to 141 for 5 before Paul Collingwood dragged them kicking and screaming to a spectacularly inglorious victory. Coming on the last official day of summer, and comprehensively overshadowed by a pulsating Manchester Derby in the Premier League, this was quite simply a contest too far. Tomorrow the teams jet off to South Africa for the Champions Trophy, and on the evidence of the past three weeks, you might as well send England straight back home again.
Even better, you might as well leave half the players behind in the first place, specifically England's guileless middle-order who, for the umpteenth time this summer, treated the loss of Andrew Strauss's wicket with the same grief and disorientation that a clutch of baby chicks might greet the devouring of their mother by a fox. Strauss made 47 from 74 balls, a continuation of his unfulfilled form in this series. He had the game at his mercy until for some strange reason - perhaps it was boredom, perhaps it was experimentation - he chose to reverse-sweep Nathan Hauritz, and chipped a looping catch to Ben Hilfenhaus in the gully.
And then the panic set in. Joe Denly had batted with poise and confidence to bring up his second half-century in ODI cricket, but the arrival of Ravi Bopara reduced his game-brain to mush, as between them the two batsmen decided to take on the bullet arm of Ricky Ponting in the covers, and lost. Bopara then fell lbw to Shane Watson for 13, Owais Shah snicked a drive off James Hopes for 7, before Eoin Morgan completed a collapse of 4 for 11 in 34 balls by edging a cut off Brett Lee for 2.
Twenty-one runs later, Matt Prior drove Ben Hilfenhaus to Ponting at short cover for 11, but Collingwood, on his home ground, finished his Australian summer as he had begun it in vastly different circumstances back at Cardiff in July, clinging on with the tail for company to swipe the momentum from Australia's grasp. That'll show 'em.
In fairness, England did just about deserve their victory, because they possessed in Swann the day's stand-out performer. He came into the attack in the 25th over of Australia's innings, with Ponting and Michael Clarke sitting pretty in a third-wicket stand of 79, and produced a spell of hand-grenade uncertainty, finding flight, loop and bite to unsettle a previously serene batting line-up. His first wicket was also the most crucial, that of Ponting, whose 53 from 67 balls had enabled Australia to recover from a shaky 17 for 2, but who fell to Swann's fifth ball of the innings, as he was deceived in the flight and plopped an attempted cover-drive into the hands of Collingwood at midwicket.
Three overs later, and Clarke, the sheet-anchor of Australia's innings, was also on his way back, courtesy of a badly-judged run to Morgan at short fine leg. His 38 from 81 balls was a broken promise of a performance - given that sort of a batting tempo, he really couldn't afford not to push onto a big score - but at 110 for 4, the innings was clearly wobbling. Five balls later and it really was in trouble as Cameron White, a centurion at the Rose Bowl, was bowled through the gate by a beautiful turning offspinner from Swann.
Though Michael Hussey remained among the specialist batsmen, the way into the tail had been opened, especially with Swann settling into a magnificent rhythm. Hopes was the next to go, caught by the bowler himself as he looped a leading edge towards mid-on, before Mitchell Johnson and Lee fell in the space of three deliveries - Johnson to another leading-edge, this time to James Anderson in the covers, and Lee bowled through the gate to complete Swann's first five-wicket haul in ODIs.
Having committed the cardinal sin of failing to play out their full 50 overs, Australia then started grimly with the ball, as Lee conceded nine runs, including four byes, from his opening over, before Hilfenhaus - given his first outing of the series at Nathan Bracken's expense - effectively relegated himself to the bench for the Champions Trophy with a shocking first spell that included four front-foot no-balls and a beamer from a free hit. Fittingly he returned at the end of the innings to produce another over-step with the scores level, to finish the tour with the dampest of squibs.
Denly took 12 deliveries to get off the mark, but once he had done so he grew in confidence, as did Strauss, who has not lacked for that aspect of his game at any stage of a superb year. Collectively, however, England are a bereft unit, this pyrrhic victory notwithstanding. An ICC 50-over world event comes around every two years, and each and every time, England manage to embark on their campaign with their hopes and expectations as low as they could possibly be. That's quite a feat, it has to be said.
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?