On a day that ebbed and flowed dramatically, New Zealand held their nerve to squeeze a tense one-wicket win at The Oval, to sneak a 2-1 lead going into the weekend's series decider at Lord's. Like England earlier in the day, New Zealand stumbled twice either side of a brisk middle-order partnership between two men searching for form, and despite a controversial moment sure to occupy the airwaves and columns for days to come, chased down 246 from the last ball of the game.
Scott Styris hit 69, Jacob Oram marked his first game of the series with a crucial 38, and Kyle Mills defied the odds to remain unbeaten on 25, which all added up to a hair-raising, pulsating chase of a target that had been set up by sparkling (but unfulfilled) fifties from Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah.
In easily the tightest contest of the summer, England were struggling to stay in the contest with New Zealand well placed on 173 for 4 in the 35th over, but hit back to dismiss Styris (brilliantly run out by Graeme Swann and Paul Collingwood), Oram (pulling to the deep) and Daniel Vettori (excellently held by Bopara at midwicket) in the space of 24 balls and for 16 runs - turning The Oval into a cauldron.
A fourth followed in the most controversial manner. With 26 needed from 39 balls, Mills called Grant Elliott for a sharp single. As Elliott bolted out of the blocks he collided with Sidebottom, rugby style, and fell flat to the ground. Ian Bell threw the ball to Kevin Pietersen, who broke the stumps, but England did not withdraw their appeal despite the umpire, Mark Benson, offering Collingwood the chance to think again. A peeved Elliott hobbled off for 24.
With 12 needed from 21, Bell knocked down the stumps with Tim Southee short of his crease. Mark Gillespie then survived a tantalizingly tense maiden 47th over from Swann, and no runs had been scored for nine deliveries when Mills, who had been sizing up the midwicket boundary, swatted Collingwood off the middle for a 106-metre six, to transform the equation from 12 from 10 to six from nine.
Manic singles followed, and it came down to three from six balls. Mills pinched a single, but the next five deliveries seemed to take an eternity as Luke Wright ploughed a channel outside off and Gillespie fished and missed repeatedly. Then, on the last ball, he pushed the ball to Swann at cover and set off for the single that would have secured the tie. Swann's shy, however, missed the stumps and with England's fielders all converging on the stumps, New Zealand's sprinted through for a delirious winning over-throw. England's final blemish in the field proved decisive.
New Zealand should have been in deep trouble long before that moment, after Ryan Sidebottom had nipped out Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor, but a spate of nerves from the home side allowed Styris to rack up some long overdue form. James Anderson should have had him on 0 but Shah at second slip spilled a regulation catch in front of his face. Sidebottom's figures of 5-0-15-2 were tarnished with a 13-run sixth over and nine in the seventh as Styris cashed in on his fortune.
Styris kept flashing and was given two more lives, on 27 and 28, first off Stuart Broad when he slashed hard and Collingwood failed to latch on at backward point, and then when Broad himself dropped a return catch. Styris' best shot, a front-foot drive through extra cover, brought him his first ODI half-century since December 2007.
Like the Styris-Oram partnership, a solid fifth-wicket stand between Bopara and Shah formed the crux of England's ultimately inadequate effort. New Zealand snapped a 41-run stand between a nervous Luke Wright (18) and Bell (46) and when Collingwood followed Pietersen's 0 with a loose shot of his own, the heat was on two men pushing for long-term spots.
Bopara - watchful and solid - and Shah - shuffling and hustling - applied themselves well for most of the 15.2 overs they shared. Shah started with a cross-batted six over midwicket off Southee, and played a more conventional six over extra cover off Vettori, but more importantly was always looking for quick singles, and urging Bopara to look out for the second.
A player with a lot of time to execute his shots, Bopara - after flops the first two matches and a start at Bristol - looked composed during his 78-ball innings. His 58 was a career-best knock, but only a tantalising glimpse of the sublime form he's been showing for Essex in county cricket this summer. He threw it away soon after passing fifty for the second time, playing a languid, frustratingly indifferent drive to Oram at mid-on.
Shah played some stunning shots, including three powerful fours in one Gillespie over as he moved past fifty from 63 balls, but was run out needlessly going for a second run on 63, amid a lower-order collapse. England's last pair lifted the total to 245 but overall it was a disappointing effort from a team that has lost steam with each match of the series.
New Zealand backed themselves to chase when they opted to field after winning the toss, and though it wasn't easy by any means, they go to Lord's with the momentum - and a little sympathy - firmly their way.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo