Ricky Ponting's 86 was the major feature for Australia as they completed a seven-wicket win against England in Antigua with 16 balls to spare. The result virtually assured them of a semi-final berth and left their rivals clinging on by their fingernails. Kevin Pietersen's fourth ODI ton, like his other three, came in a losing cause, with Australia's three frontline pacemen responding to Ponting's clever captaincy as the innings fell away dramatically.
While Pietersen and Bell were adding 140 in 23 overs Australia were being challenged for the first time since South Africa's opening stand in St Kitts. Like they did on that occasion, they passed the test with flying colours. A mixture of Shaun Tait's raw pace and Glenn McGrath's craft instigated a collapse of 8 for 83, which left Pietersen needing to rebuild rather than hit out. Although he reached his century from 117 balls, his first in 33 innings since taking on South Africa at Centurion Park, there was a sense of it being in vain even before Australia's chase.
If England were to put pressure on Australia's batting, which included Brad Hodge at No. 7, they needed to reprise the early wickets they secured at the tail-end of the CB Series. But Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist both survived close lbw shouts early on to add 57. Andrew Flintoff, rekindling his round-the-wicket approach to Gilchrist, had him caught at point, but Ponting quickly settled with an elegantly lofted drive off Monty Panesar.
The one passage where England managed a modicum of control coincided with Paul Collingwood's first-ball dismissal of Hayden for a bullying 41. As Ponting and Michael Clarke assessed the situation the required rate climbed to 5.8, but the Australians were just pacing themselves. The 30-over drinks break signalled the victory charge as the gamble of returning to Mahmood failed and one over cost 13. Ponting's fifty took 69 balls and he showed his emotion with a fist punch towards the dressing room. He wasn't going to let England back in a match he'd had a key role in wrestling from their grasp.
Ponting opened up until he was brilliantly run-out by Collingwood as he went halfway for a run and decided against it. Clarke, though, overcame a sluggish start and took over the senior role, after adding 112 with his captain, while Andrew Symonds added the finishing flourishes. Despite his brief innings, there was one shot from Symonds that left everyone jumping for the law book. He launched Collingwood out to midwicket and Pietersen held a fine running catch, but his momentum carried him over the rope and in releasing the ball he was ruled not to be in control of his actions. Australia, though, were in complete control of their movements.
It meant England, even after producing the one century-maker of the match, were left to rue another batting display that imploded from a near-perfect platform. A rapid Tait dispatched Vaughan and Andrew Strauss via bottom edges, but Bell produced his most commanding one-day innings for England. He wasn't afraid to go over the top, taking three fours in four balls off McGrath. Pietersen's first rematch with the man who broke his rib at the MCG in January went the batsman's way but, possibly for the final time in his career against England, McGrath had the final say, removing Bell for 77.
Ponting managed his limited resources expertly and took a leaf out of Mahela Jayawardene's book by delaying the final Powerplay. With England 146 for 2 after 26 overs, the prime time for some reverse-swing, Ponting opted to use the restrictions. Tait immediately made the ball shape, but it was McGrath who struck as Bell fell between 50 and 88 for the tenth time.
When Collingwood edged one which held its line and Flintoff was beaten by Brad Hogg's wrong'un, England had lost three key men for 15 runs in six overs. Although Pietersen had for once survived the collapse, having earlier been dropped on 50 and 63, including a sitter by Hayden at mid-off, scoring became difficult.
Ravi Bopara helped add 51 for the sixth wicket, but he couldn't repeat the flowing strokeplay of his Sri Lankan effort, and the late acceleration never came. McGrath and Nathan Bracken were miserly at the death as the closing overs were all Australia's, barring Pietersen, who enjoyed reaching his ton with a typically flamboyant celebration. However, it was Australia who could smile at the end as their World Cup marched on.