An honourable exit
The end, when it came, was cruel but apposite. England's dominance of West Indies this summer had been so absolute that, at times at venues such as Chester-le-Street and Bristol, their very future as an international outfit had been called into question by a doom-mongering press. But, for the only nine overs that mattered out of a cast of hundreds since the start of May, West Indies found the focus they so dearly needed to dump the hosts out of the World Twenty20.
For England's captain, Paul Collingwood, however, recriminations were pointless. His team did not help themselves by failing to score a boundary for the best part of ten overs, but after their remarkable victory over India, their bid for a semi-final berth was always going to depend on the ability of their bowling attack, bulked out by the addition of Adil Rashid, to reproduce the hostility and focus that had secured their defence of 153 at Lord's on Sunday night.
By the time the rains closed in, however, the subtlety of their selection was lost in a melee of big hits, and a target of 80 in nine overs was always going to favour the chasing team. England tried their hardest and gave a frenzied crowd plenty reason to believe, especially when West Indies slipped to 45 for 5 with four overs remaining, but in the end it was simply not to be.
"I'm very proud of the guys, to be honest with you," said Collingwood. "The way they've fought through the tournament, it's been a roller-coaster ride. At one point we had a real chance to win it, and to get into that position shows our real character, as it's not easy to defend a target off nine overs. A lot of positives come out of the whole tournament - maybe the consistency wasn't there, but we are definitely improving."
Collingwood's pride was not misplaced, in spite of a tournament record (LWLWL) that reflects England's enduring frailties in the format. For a team that tasted humiliation on the opening night of the competition to come so close to the semi-finals represents a triumph of the pyrrhic variety. England are still naïve in 20-over cricket as their batting performance showed, but at least they are no longer aloof to the format's charms.
"We're catching up, that's the important thing," said Collingwood. "Even with that lack of experience in Twenty20 cricket, we're catching up with the skills and thought processes, and we're understanding situations and pressures. We need a lot more time to get accustomed to the conditions, and it is very important that you do play more Twenty20 cricket if you want to be realistic about winning these competitions, but the boys can take a lot of credit."
England didn't look like emerging with anything remotely positive after their disastrous opening fixture against the Dutch, but with the benefit of hindsight, Collingwood conceded that the brutality of that reality check had been exactly what his players needed. The constant need to battle back, first against Pakistan and then later in another do-or-die encounter with India, brought the players closer to their public, and more importantly, closer to each other.
"When you hurt like that it hurts everyone in the dressing room," said Collingwood. "You can either go one way - fragment, go into corners and start whispering - or come together as a real close-knit unit, and that's what we did, and I'm real proud of the guys because it would have been easy to go the other way.
"Sometimes these things are real blessings in disguise," he added. "It didn't feel it at the time, it was very disappointing, but what we produced after that, the performances against India and Pakistan, proved that when we get it right we can play really good Twenty20 cricket. It would have been easy to lie down and lose confidence, but it was the complete opposite. We kept bouncing back and showed a lot of character.
"Even that first game against the Netherlands, we were all disappointed to lose it but it was an exceptional game. The people who've watched back home and turned up at the grounds have seen some excellent cricket, and from our point of view we've developed some great skills, both before and during the tournament. Being exposed to Twenty20 has been good. And we are getting better at this form of the game."
For now, however, the focus switches with dramatic haste to the great unmentionable challenge that lies ahead. For weeks and months, England have desperately tried not to utter the A word in public, but now - with an honourable exit from the World Twenty20 secured - that embargo can now be lifted. "The boys have been 100% focussed on this," said Collingwood, "but now it really is time to get the bodies, the minds and the skills right to beat the Aussies in the Ashes."
To that end, Collingwood's interim tenure as captain has, somewhat remarkably after the early impressions, turned out to be a success. Sometime next week, he will formally hand the leadership back to Andrew Strauss, with most of the key components of England's Ashes campaign in fine fettle despite their tournament exit. Ravi Bopara's form shows no sign of waning, Kevin Pietersen's Achilles issues are not hindering his run-scoring, while the key trio of seamers - Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom - are all at something close to the top of their game. There's even been the bonus of the successful blooding of Adil Rashid.
"I guess part of my job as captain was to keep the same kind of team ethos," said Collingwood. "Straussy hasn't been involved, so my job was to keep the togetherness, and to back each other up as players. We've continued to do that, and we've grown stronger throughout the tournament. Thankfully when I give the reins back to Straussy the boys will be in good spirits and determined to do well. Although we got beaten today and knocked out of the tournament, I think the boys are focussed on what's coming ahead."
As for his future as England's Twenty20 captain, Collingwood was non-committal.
"I've enjoyed it," he said. "There've been ups and downs, but this time I can safely say I've been very calm and played with a smile on my face, and I've enjoyed the tough situations. I don't know what the future holds, Straussy comes back in now, and I'll look forward to doing my normal job in the Test side. But I've thoroughly enjoyed the captaincy, because I've had a group of lads who've put 100% into the tournament."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo