England v Australia, NatWest Challenge, The Oval July 12, 2005

Australia show their finest timing

Kevin Pietersen has shown an Australian sense by performing when it matters © Getty Images

This one-day portion of the summer was all about timing. Adam Gilchrist and Kevin Pietersen found theirs today, Ricky Ponting showed he hadn't lost it since Lord's on Sunday, and the players and supporters of England and Australia are counting down the weeks, days and minutes to the Ashes. Today's game provided the final chance for either side to gain the psychological high ground and Australia perched themselves on top after another clinical display.

Australia have a knack of timing these things just right. They have taken longer than usual to hit their straps on this trip but both teams know the major prize is still up for grabs. Don't for one minute think that they weren't gutted not to win the NatWest Series, or that they were not highly embarrassed by their defeat to Bangladesh. Aussies want to win everything - but the Ashes above all.

There are precedents from the recent past of Australia not starting well on a tour or tournament in England. In 1997, they endured a tough beginning with Mark Taylor, the captain, stuck in a horrific run of form, but they won the three Tests that mattered. Then, in 1999, they were on the verge of going out of the World Cup before Steve Waugh and Shane Warne produced days of grit and flair in equal amounts. They won the big matches and judged their run to perfection.

And with a scent of this summer's main business wafting through the hot London air, Australia have decided that now is the time to make some big statements. Brett Lee and Ponting took centre stage at Lord's, and this time it was Gilchrist's turn. His celebration upon reaching his hundred put Ponting's in the shade - he might have ended up doing a complete lap of the ground. England had managed to keep the Australian big guns quiet for the best part of a month, but they haven't quite been able to silence them all the way up to the start of the Test matches.

Although England have been out of synch in the last two matches, Pietersen's 74 could not have been better timed. Each of his innings has been another opportunity to stake his Test claims, but this was his last chance before the squad is announced this week. He took it in some style, with England tottering at 44 for 2 when he arrived, and in tatters at 93 for 6 when he really got going.

Better to have the nightmare now and wake up from it © Getty Images

Graham Thorpe has spent four days testing his back against Gloucestershire but the reports emanating from the West Country are mixed. Thorpe sounds confident - that is to be expected - while David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, has been dropping subtle hints that his back is the very thing that he might need to watch.

Pietersen, on the other hand, showed his back was in perfect working order, even though he later limped off the field with a worrying groin strain. When he came to the crease the cheers were more muted than usual, perhaps the star was fading after a few low scores, but he returned to the pavilion to rapturous applause. Pietersen made a statement today, we will find out on Thursday whether Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher are "on message".

Pietersen may be the new hero in English cricket, but a former talisman is struggling to fight off the advancing years. The best cricketers tend to know when the time has come to retire gracefully, before they are pushed or drift off into oblivion. Darren Gough has been written off before and bounced back, but there was a clear sign today that he was not himself.

After many of his deliveries, he stood and scratched away at the footholes in a manner more reminiscent of Andrew Caddick. If the Gough of old was hit for four he would turn and go straight back to his mark but now there is a feeling he is looking for excuses.

England will not offer any for this hammering and will insist that their morale remains intact and spirits high. The team has shown itself to be a tough group of players, but the timing of this result - on the back of the Lord's match - is not what was needed.

However, two one-day defeats at the hands of Australia does not spell the end of the summer - let's just remember how commonplace they used to be. It's better to have a nightmare now, wake up from it, and realise you live to fight another day, because the next time these two teams will be dressed in whites, armed with a red ball and playing for a small urn.

Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo