1. England 2. Australia 3. New Zealand
England engineered a comeback that, while never quite impossible, was certainly unthinkable. They claimed their first Australian tri-series in 20 years to end a wretched tour in a manner that confounded Australia and their critics at home, and astonished even themselves.
The turnaround started on February 2, eighty-nine days after England had arrived in the country. Their cricket had reached rock bottom a week earlier at Adelaide, when England lost their tenth consecutive match against Australia - a Champions Trophy game in India, five Tests, a Twenty20, and three qualifiers in this tournament. England scraped together only 110 on a good pitch, and lost what was supposed to be a day/night match before the floodlights kicked in. The bells of St Peter's Cathedral tolled for England, Duncan Fletcher apologised publicly and, two days later, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sydney tabloid, printed mock boarding passes for the squad to fly home early.
At this point, there was every sign that the players desperately wished the tickets were legitimate, and no sign whatever that England could reach the finals, never mind win. Indeed, there was worse to come. England lost again to New Zealand in Perth on January 30, and an Australia v New Zealand final looked a foregone conclusion.
Instead, the team left Australia having won both finals matches, and clutching a J-shaped silver trophy (at least ten times bigger than the Ashes) that would be the first feature if Lord's ever acquired a feng shui garden. For most of the tournament it had been the England players who needed the calm surroundings. Selfbelief had evaporated during the 5-0 Ashes whitewash, and it showed few signs of returning during the first half of the one-day series. Kevin Pietersen, easily their most accomplished batsman, suffered a cracked rib after charging down the pitch at Glenn McGrath in the first game, and he was joined at home by James Anderson (back), Jon Lewis (Achilles tendon), Chris Tremlett (back) and Michael Vaughan before the result was settled.
Even England's first win of the tour - against New Zealand at Hobart 72 days after landing in Australia - was soured when Vaughan tore his left hamstring; the only consolation was that it was not related to the longstanding knee problem which had kept him out of the Ashes series. Flintoff, a discredited leader who was too proud to decline the honour, was reinstalled as captain, and four more defeats followed.
The annual contest had acquired new sponsors, but the format remained untouched: after each team had played eight preliminary matches, two would progress to the best-of-three finals. Three-quarters of the way through the qualifiers, with England floundering and New Zealand failing to give Australia a serious workout either, the Australian coach John Buchanan complained (in his usual opaque way) that his team was not getting enough quality play ahead of the World Cup. Buchanan had increased their training load, which was blamed for some sluggishness in the preliminary stages, but they still pipe-dreamed of 400-plus totals and an unbeaten home season. The Australians used their familiar rotation policy during the qualifiers, especially for the bowlers; Ponting was also rested for a match in Brisbane, and all went as smoothly as ever. However, the turning point of this series was the game Ponting missed against England at Sydney, when he had a slight hip injury. He said the problem was not serious, and indicated that he could have played if it had been a major game. No one seemed to think it was a major game: there were reports of tickets being sold on ebay for $A5 (£2) - less than a month after a Test there for which tickets were almost unobtainable.
Underestimating the opposition proved costly: a maiden century from Ed Joyce provided England with the top-order runs they had been failing to generate. Paul Collingwood followed suit in the next two games, then topscored with 70 in the second final - and they made at least 246 in all four of those matches. The extra output meant that the bowlers were not faced with the prospect of having to force instant breakthroughs.
At Sydney, England beat Australia for the first time since the Trent Bridge Test in August 2005, and the margin of victory was so convincing that they captured a bonus point too. Suddenly, they were in a situation where one last win over New Zealand would put them in the finals. Even more importantly, the success gave the players confidence that they could compete at last after a non-stop diet of humiliation. Vaughan returned four days later in Brisbane for what was now a knockout tie, and added to the regeneration by having faith in his bowlers' ability to defend. New Zealand skipped to 81 in 13 overs chasing England's 270, but Vaughan reorganised coolly, and Flintoff, freed of the cares of leadership, was able to bowl with power and accuracy, while Liam Plunkett recovered from a patchy start to collect three valuable wickets.
However, nobody embodied the switch from hopeless to heroic quite like Collingwood. Since his brilliant batting in the opening two Tests, he had been dismantled by the Australians. His lame chip to mid-off during the horrible Australia Day performance at Adelaide (scene of his Test match double-century) was among the softest dismissals of the season.
Collingwood reacquainted himself with his technique in the Brisbane nets before the knockout contest with New Zealand, and trusted himself to revert to accumulating instead of wanting to match the opposition's power strikers. He lightened up, smiled, and forgot his lean patch: 83 in six innings. His 106, backed up by the bowlers, gained England a spot in the finals, where Collingwood powered on, and his 120 and 70 sealed the unlikeliest of triumphs. England had won four games in a row, including three over Australia, and would head to the West Indies for the World Cup with hope replacing dread. Flintoff said it was the best he had seen the side play in one-day cricket.
He was now on his third stint of the tour as captain, and finally found a way to play without the extra responsibility affecting his primary duties. The bowling spark stayed, and he made important contributions with the bat in both games. After saluting the Barmy Army at the SCG, he also praised the coach, whose job had come under increasing scrutiny since the Ashes were surrendered. "The one person I really want to thank is Duncan Fletcher," said Flintoff. "Throughout the trip he has kept taking the knocks for us, but he has kept backing us." The behind-the-scenes role cannot be measured accurately from outside the dressing-room, but Fletcher and his band of assistant coaches and aides must gain some credit for reinvigorating the players and patching up fragile and beaten minds, as well as blame for the three abject months that preceded this. Fletcher himself said he had gained inspiration in the bad times from Alan Chambers ("The Iceman"), a polar explorer who quoted Mother Teresa to him: "When you are successful, you win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies." But England gained more solid assistance by being forced to turn to players from outside the Ashes party. The introduction of three old county pros - all in their thirties - improved England's body language even during the early difficult weeks. Lewis's bowling offered some Hoggardian reliability; Mal Loye certainly got up Australian noses, though his dependence on the sweep made it hard for this to last indefinitely; but no one irritated the Aussies quite as much as the wicketkeeper Paul Nixon ("The Badger"). Nixon was plucked from Leicestershire aged 36, specifically because, unlike the diffident Ashes keepers Geraint Jones and Chris Read, he could gee up his team-mates and needle the opposition with an Australian shamelessness and indomitability. Though not necessarily more skilful, his batting was far more combative than anything England had lately seen from their keepers.
In the end, New Zealand and Australia were drowned out by Nixon. Stephen Fleming's side was one win - or even an Australian victory over England at Sydney - from the finals after beating England twice, but Fleming went home to face questions about his leadership, despite ending a personal lean patch with a century at the Gabba.
New Zealand had arrived waiting for Jacob Oram, Scott Styris and Kyle Mills to return from injury, and were confident they would provide a lateseries surge. Oram did his bit, moving quickly into full swing by recording the fastest one-day international century by a New Zealander, and his 261 runs at 87, with a strike-rate of 124, ended any doubts about his hamstring injury. Lou Vincent, another late call-up when Nathan Astle suddenly decided to retire, performed strongly with three half-centuries in four matches, while the fast but frail Shane Bond was carefully managed, and collected 11 wickets. Until England's resurgence, Australia had proved unbeatable from a variety of positions, but Andrew Symonds's exit with a torn bicep while batting in their only preliminary-round defeat created instability. The balance of the side was affected, and Australia chose to bring in Brad Hogg and Shane Watson, who had played only one game between them, for the finals. Neither made a significant mark with the ball or in Australia's middle order, which struggled in both matches.
The attack was uncomfortable bowling at the end, and the batsmen did not enjoy facing high-quality swing. Plunkett, previously England's forgotten man, was particularly potent, castling Gilchrist first ball in the vital Sydney qualifier, and repeating the dose first ball after a rain-break in the SCG final. Gilchrist's right-handed team-mates also struggled when the ball arced away. McGrath completed his final home series as the most successful bowler with 13 wickets, but on some days he looked his age, especially in the first final at the MCG, which happened to be on his 37th birthday. On the good days, he had solid back-up from Nathan Bracken and Brett Lee, while Ponting and Matthew Hayden led the run list.
As a batsman, Ponting remained untainted, and had 445 runs came at 74.16, with two impressive centuries. However, he had developed a worrying pattern of handing over trophies to England that he felt belonged in Australia. "I don't really have any explanation as to why we played the way we have in the last couple of games," he said after the finals. Predicting England's miraculous turnaround might have been impossible even from within either team's inner sanctum, but Australia's terminal mistakes were over-confidence, confusion over their best line-up, and a tendency to relax against opponents whose spirit refused to die.
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