This was supposed to be the day Australia's pace attack bared its teeth. Freed from the claustrophobia of the indoor nets by an unlikely break in the Durham weather, they were to be unleashed on England. Four quicks had been selected, the ineffectual Xavier Doherty dropped and the enigmatic Mitchell Johnson left out. In damp air, and on a seaming, tacky pitch, Ben Hilfenhaus, James Pattinson, Brett Lee and Clint McKay were resolved, as Hilfenhaus put it, to "show England what we're made of".
Not for the first time on this tour, Australia's lofty expectations were to prove completely out of step with the prevailing reality. Given only 200 runs to defend by batsmen who admittedly had to cope with much the worst of the conditions, the touring bowlers were swatted away by Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott without anything like the sort of discomfort anticipated. Their ineffectiveness was to be compounded by a pair of ruinous injuries to Shane Watson and Brett Lee, the latter perhaps walking from the field in England for the very last time.
That Australia's bowlers should struggle to get past England's Test match proven top three was not in itself a surprise - the hosts had lost only eight wickets across the first two matches before Edgbaston's wash-out. But the fact that on a seaming pitch the visitors could not even manage to claim one early wicket, let alone pressure England for any length of the chase, added another disheartening chapter to the book that may be written on why the team coached by Andy Flower remains well in advance of Australia's. For those citing the injuries as a possible excuse, it can be countered that the match was slipping away well before Watson and Lee hobbled off.
Of the touring bowlers, only David Saker's former student McKay has offered a consistent, nagging threat to England on this trip. Fractionally too short at Lord's, he has improved with each match, and here returned a meritorious 2 for 29. The rest, however, have struggled to put the ball where they need to in the manner of their English counterparts, whether they be experienced or callow.
The example for the rest was thought likely to come from Lee, but by the time he left the field at Durham it was possible to ponder how capable he is of providing it. Lee's calf complaint is the probable end to his tour, but it had already been a frustrating one, for the precision he showed against Ireland in Belfast had not been matched against England. Lee was unable to nail his yorkers at a pivotal time at Lord's, allowing Eoin Morgan to wriggle the total beyond 250 where for most of the innings 230 was the favourite. The Oval came and went with a similar lack of threat at the required times.
"Pattinson has now been introduced to a sensation that has become all too familiar among Australian cricketers: that of defeat against England."
At Chester-le-Street, Lee followed up a shortish maiden in his first over by conceding 12 from his second, either dropping short or drifting wide to force his removal from the attack. A return spell lasted only two balls before Lee was unable to bowl, and he remains short of Glenn McGrath's Australian ODI wickets record. The question for the national selector John Inverarity is how much longer Lee, at 35, can be permitted to pursue it.
Lee had been preceded on his unhappy path to the treatment room by Watson, another who has not met expectations with the ball. One wicket in three games at a cost of 6.11 runs per over left Watson looking very much the fifth bowler on Australia's team sheet, when for so long his medium paced swing and seam has been arguably the ODI team's most versatile asset. Watson has been unable to contain or take wickets, leaving Clarke less able to call on him in the Powerplay overs or at the death of an innings, as he had done frequently during the Australian summer. After a lengthy period in which he became admirably robust, injuries have begun to creep back into Watson's story, a fact arguably more disquieting than the runs he has conceded in these games.
Hilfenhaus had conveyed his urgent desire to play in the lead-up to this match, but, as against Ireland, his ODI bowling was to prove curiously muted next to the shrewd and strong displays he had offered against India and the West Indies during the Test matches that preceded it. While a better bowler than he had shown against England during the last Ashes series in Australia, Hilfenhaus was not as much of a challenge for Bell, Cook and Trott as he should have been on this surface. By his own admission Hilfenhaus remains a student of the one-day game rather than its master, but he will have to bowl more incisively than this on the Ashes tour next year.
All this left Pattinson with a considerable weight on his shoulders in his first match against England. His first over was bedevilled by an introductory no-ball, and was studded with a pair of Ian Bell boundaries. Pattinson improved in subsequent spells, bowling as well to Cook as his fellow young firebrand Pat Cummins had done at Lord's. On another day he might have had a wicket or two, and can be said to have bowled better than his figures showed. But he has now been introduced to a sensation that has become all too familiar among Australian cricketers: that of defeat against England.
Between the rain, the defeats and the injuries, this has been a most unsatisfactory visit for Clarke's tourists, and a most sobering one. While the shortcomings of the batsmen are widely known, the selected bowlers have been left in little doubt that they have plenty of work to do also. Sharper teeth will need to be found in time for next year, otherwise the same story will be related.