Ponting and Watson lead the rout
Australia's cricketers proved that their recent 6-1 thrashing of England was neither an aberration nor entirely irrelevant, as Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson produced their country's highest partnership in limited-overs cricket, a majestic alliance of 252 in 242 balls, to power their side into Monday's final of the Champions Trophy.
Chasing a target of 258 that was swelled only by an improbable career-best from Tim Bresnan at No. 8, Australia sauntered to a nine-wicket victory against their favourite ODI opponents with a massive 49 balls to spare. Ponting chalked up his 28th one-day century, and his 12,000th run in the format, en route to an unbeaten 111 from 115 balls, while Watson provided the gloss finish with 136 not out from 132 balls, his third and highest hundred in 89 games.
Incredibly there were no Australian players named in the ODI Team of the Year that was unveiled at the ICC's annual awards ceremony on Thursday night, but the world's leading 50-over nation proved once more that they may be a side in transition, but they are by no means a spent force, as they secured the right to defend the title they won in India in October 2006. The end, when it came, was nose-rubbingly humiliating, as the Aussies claimed the batting Powerplay with 28 runs still required, and duly clobbered 23 of them in a single over from Paul Collingwood, including three of Watson's seven sixes, all from exuberant heaves through the leg-side. For a man who started the tournament with two ducks, it was a spectacular riposte.
England were utterly powerless to stem the tide, and in fact, the only thing that came close to upstaging Australia's canter to victory was the swarm of moths that flocked to sample Centurion's floodlights, and so delayed the start of their run-chase. Andrew Strauss won the toss, as he always does - this was his ninth in 11 ODIs in the past month, and his seventh out of eight against the Aussies - but after slashing a four and a six in his first eight deliveries, he was brilliantly caught by James Hopes at square leg in the second over of the match, and in so doing he set an unfortunate precedent for his team-mates.
After 20.2 overs of the match, England's spirited campaign was in ruins. They had chosen to bat with the same gung-ho aggression that had carried them to impressive wins against Sri Lanka and South Africa, but in so doing they shed six wickets for 101, and were in danger of being skittled with half of their overs remaining. Owais Shah followed his breathtaking 98 from 89 balls at this same venue on Sunday with a second-ball duck, and though Paul Collingwood bristled during a counterattacking 34, he was snaffled one-handed by the wicketkeeper Tim Paine, who claimed five catches in a hyperactive performance behind the stumps.
The rest of the specialist batsmen followed meekly. Joe Denly looked composed before falling in the thirties, as is his unfortunate habit, while Steven Davies - making his ODI debut after replacing the ill Matt Prior - lasted a mere four deliveries before inside-edging Watson onto his off stump. When Eoin Morgan carved at a cut to end a laboured innings of 9 from 27 balls, normal service was all set to be resumed, after England's whitewash-averting victory at Durham a fortnight ago.
But instead, Bresnan and Wright set about rebuilding from the very foundations of the innings, adding 107 for the seventh wicket in a performance that both put their colleagues to shame, and proved the placid nature of the surface. After bedding themselves in with discipline, Wright signalled the charge in the 35th over by smacking Nathan Hauritz for two sixes over midwicket, and though he was caught behind soon afterwards for 48, Bresnan continued to march onwards and upwards, using a good eye and a heavy bat to punish any error in line or length.
Bresnan was a late addition to the side after Stuart Broad failed to recover from a strained left buttock, and he entered the game with a slap on the wrists from the management after abusing a fan who had made fun of his weight on the social networking site, Twitter. With an improbable century on the cards, he was bowled by Brett Lee during the batting Powerplay, whereupon England's innings finished as disappointingly as it had begun, with a spate of run-outs curtailing their innings with 14 balls remaining.
After their insect interlude, Australia suffered an early setback when Graham Onions extracted Tim Paine in his first over, but from that moment on, they didn't ever look like being troubled. Ponting dealt almost exclusively in boundaries in the formative stage of his innings, with 28 of his first 29 runs coming in fours, while Watson's only genuine let-off came when Wright strayed out of position on the long-on boundary, and spilled a catch off Graeme Swann over the rope for his first six.
Australia's batsmen played formidably, but England's bowlers were way off the mark, consistently banging the ball in short in a bid to ruffle a few feathers, but instead offered far too many scoring opportunities. James Anderson, as ever, was the most potent attacking option, but even he lost his groove after a hideous piece of fielding from Morgan, who collected the ball in the covers and winged a wild shy clean over the keeper's head for four. Ponting, the beneficiary, followed up with three more boundaries from the next five balls that Anderson bowled at him.
In the end, there was an inevitability to Australia's destructive denouement. England's campaign has been one of their most successful forays into one-day cricket for many a long year, but they still managed only a 50-50 success rate in their four games, never mind the humiliating margin of this latest contest. Australia, meanwhile, march onwards towards another yet slice of silverware. Ponting's emotional celebrations of his century spoke volumes of his continuing resolve. On this form, it will not matter who they face in the final.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo