Brittle England crack despite Pietersen century
Hundreds, hundreds, hundreds. That has been England's mantra throughout this tournament. If one of the top six reaches three figures, so their reasoning has gone, then victory will surely not be far behind. That wish was granted, as Kevin Pietersen, the world's No. 1 one-day batsman, recorded his fourth ODI century (but his first, strangely, since that epic debut tour of South Africa two winters ago). And yet still it was not enough. Australia proved too versatile and England too brittle, as their hopes of qualification receded ever further.
But at least England have a World Cup centurion at long, long last. Incredibly, this was the first by any of their batsmen since Graeme Hick plundered 104 not out against The Netherlands in 1995-96, and more extraordinarily, their first against a Test-playing nation since Graham Gooch's legendary sweep-athon against India in the 1987 semi-final. Two barren decades later, it's little wonder they aren't really a side to take seriously as World Cup challengers.
Even when it came, the carping couldn't be helped. Pietersen's innings, it has been whispered, was self-centred. "I was a bit surprised he didn't step his innings up earlier," Ricky Ponting said. Even Michael Vaughan, in the middle of praising his man, couldn't help slipping in that "he wanted to get a hundred", as if it was suddenly a crime to be cautious. And in a sense it was. So much has been invested in England's powerhouse pairing of Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff that neither can be permitted to dawdle. Not even when, in Pietersen's case, he didn't really have an alternative.
England's tactic in this World Cup of building a platform then leaping gleefully into the final ten overs has been about as successful as Greg Louganis' back-flip at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. On the one hand Pietersen has been co-opted into the sheet-anchor role that the top-order, with the exception of Ian Bell, has failed to provide; on the other, Flintoff is so hopelessly out of sorts with the bat that he would barely be worthy of a No. 9 slot in a combined World Cup XI.
He's not the only one struggling for runs, however, and Vaughan was quick to admit to his own latest failing. By the time he had inside-edged Shaun Tait on to his stumps for 5, England's captain had mustered 83 runs in six innings in this tournament, and now averages less than 27 in his 83-match career. "It's very frustrating," he said. "It's as frustrating for me as it is for everyone watching, I can tell you. It's just not happening. That's sometimes the way batting goes. "
Comparisons with Mike Brearley's captaincy are no longer being made in the flattering, cerebral sense. For all the nous he brings to England's fielding effort, the burden of his failures at the top of the order are being felt all the way down, not least by Flintoff, whose grotesque innings of 4 from 19 balls ended in a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other stumping. "It can be quite tricky playing down that bottom order," Vaughan said. "Freddie will be the first to admit he's probably just struggling a little bit at the minute, as I am."
The inflexibility of England's approach was what brought them down. From 164 for 2 with 20 overs remaining, a total of 300 was not an inconceivable goal, but Ponting's cunning use of the third Powerplay toppled them over the brink in familiar yet spectacular fashion. Having held it back until the 27th over, in came Glenn McGrath, and down fell Bell - the rock on whom Pietersen's late assault, were it to come, had to be built.
"Ian played really nicely," Vaughan said. "That third Powerplay period is a real difficult time because you've got two guys in and you know they want to make the most of it. He'd hit the ball beautifully over extra-cover so I don't begrudge him at all for trying to take that shot on. He played a tremendous knock and showed what a class player he is."
But it's a sorry state of affairs when accidents, such as Bell's untimely dismissal here and his unfortunate run-out against Sri Lanka, turn out to be fatal. "We are very, very close to being a real good one-day team," Vaughan said, but his words rang a little bit hollow after the squandering of two positions from which good one-day teams would have to be dragged kicking and screaming. "I know we've lost two games but we've put two good teams under a lot of pressure."
Ponting actually agreed with that sentiment, although that probably says more about the lack of challenges his team has faced so far in this tournament than anything else. "Today's been our biggest test, no doubt about it," he said. "England should have made 270-280, no question, and our run-chase was big enough anyway. We did what we had to do, but we had plenty of batting to come and we could have taken risks earlier if needed. But we'd sewn things up and carried on to win the game."
Six matches, six wins, and not a close encounter among them. Australia's juggernaut rumbles on to Barbados; England, meanwhile, face a testing encounter against Bangladesh, whose victory over South Africa provided them with today's lifeline. They'll need some hundreds in that game for sure.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo