For the first time in a long time, Australia are being threatened with the prospect of a 5-0 whitewash, and must rely on their inner mongrel to salvage some dignity from a series in which they have been comfortably outplayed
In the end, it was close. So, so close. But thanks to Tim Bresnan's selective slogging in the desperate closing overs at Old Trafford, England avoided their old-school trick of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory over Australia, and turned a jittery 2-1 scoreline into an unequivocally imposing 3-0 walkover. For the first time in a long time, Australia are being threatened with the prospect of a 5-0 whitewash, and must rely on their inner mongrel to salvage some dignity from a series in which they have been comfortably outplayed.
Sporting contests often come down to the finest of margins - just ask England's footballers, who will gripe for evermore about the goal that wasn't in Bloemfontein. But in both of Sunday's matches, the most memorable passage of play was also the most misleading. Until their dramatic collapse of six wickets for 18, England were cruising to their most crushing win of the campaign so far, and the fact that they held their nerve in spite of the late jitters actually said more about the spirit of their side than a seven-wicket stroll ever could have done.
That's not to say that further victories are a foregone conclusion - far from it. The spirit that Doug Bollinger and Shaun Tait summoned in adversity was stunning to behold, and gave England a timely reminder of the qualities required to play for a champion side. An Australian team with Ricky Ponting at the helm, no matter how quiet his current form may be, has a direct link to the country's recent golden era, and as such, it retains an aura that England's own prospective worldbeaters have yet to acquire.
Now the series moves south to London, and it just so happens that the last two games, The Oval and Lord's, were the scenes of Australia's defeats in last summer's Ashes. Whether that inspires either side to greater deeds is a moot point, but Ponting for one will not be lacking for incentives to get one over the old enemy. A dead rubber it may be in theory, but with a seminal winter in prospect, the tug-of-war over the bragging rights is only just getting started.
Shaun Tait's return to 50-over action was unmissable. He hadn't featured in the format since February 2009, but from the moment he detonated Craig Kieswetter's middle stump in the first over of the run-chase, England had no option but to treat his missiles with utter respect. Ricky Ponting used him brilliantly, in shockingly quick two-over bursts, and each of his three wickets came in the first over of a new spell. He could be wild and woolly, and some his wides barely touched the cut strip, but when he got it right, his 95mph pace was too hot to handle.
Kevin Pietersen has been subdued without looking out of form in the series to date. Some of his strokeplay has been out of this world, but scores of 29, 33 and 25 speak of a job half done. In many respects that is a testament to England's dominance - KP has been a second-fiddle in most of his innings to date, to Eoin Morgan at the Rose Bowl and Andrew Strauss at Old Trafford - but it goes without saying, he'll not want the series to drift by without putting in a command performance.
Shaun Marsh had been touted for a call-up to inject some new life into a misfiring batting line-up, but the signs are that Australia intend to stick to the men who've got them into this pickle in the first place. The new-look bowling attack did everything that was asked of it at Old Trafford, so no changes there either.
Australia (possible) 1 Shane Watson, 2 Tim Paine (wk), 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Cameron White, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 James Hopes, 8 Steven Smith, 9 Shaun Tait, 10 Ryan Harris, 11 Doug Bollinger.
England's spare parts have been continuing their exodus to the shires, with Ian Bell and Ajmal Shahzad loaned out to the Lions for their game against West Indies. Another sign that an unchanged team is in prospect.
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Craig Kieswetter (wk), 3 Kevin Pietersen, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Eoin Morgan, 6 Michael Yardy, 7 Luke Wright, 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson.
Pitch and conditions
England's heat-wave is set to continue, despite a brief shower on Tuesday that coincided, according to a certain tabloid, with the footballers' return from South Africa. Another win-the-toss-and-bat wicket is in prospect - except, of course, that isn't Andrew Strauss's style right now ...
Stats and Trivia
England's run of three ODI wins in a row equals their best in recent times against Australia - their improbable revival under Andrew Flintoff during the CB Series in 2006-07. But they've still got a way to go to better the five in a row they achieved between 1995 and 1999, a run that included another 3-0 home scoreline in the 1997 Texaco Trophy.
England have won 17 of their 31 ODIs at The Oval, but it's not been their happiest hunting ground of late. They've won just two of their last eight fixtures, one against Bangladesh in 2005, and another against South Africa in 2008.
"We'd love to stop them, 5-0 would be devastating. But we've just got to go out there and do everything properly and hopefully win the next two." Doug Bollinger is still gunning for victory, despite the series loss
"It's important that we keep the momentum going and confidence going in this game and not look too far ahead. It's been a great series win but I don't think we're finished."
Michael Yardy wants England to complete the job they've started