A timely return to form

Let's face it. The result of this match was immaterial. England would happily trade a decade of NatWest Challenge defeats for a victory in next week's first Test. What they could have done without, however, was a return to form for arguably the most crucial batsman on either side.

This one-day circus has been an amateur psychologist's delight, and by posting his first three-figure score of the summer, Ricky Ponting has landed a major blow for Australia at the penultimate opportunity. It will irk England no end that they allowed him off the hook. Early on, their bowlers lacked the discipine to clamp him down and, with one firm spank for six off Andrew Flintoff, the Ponting of old re-emerged from his shell.

It was joy tinged with relief (or was that vice versa?) for Ponting when he reached his hundred. He whirled his bat around his head before punching the air with two hands, but what will this captain's hundred mean for Australia? In 1997, the last time the teams were as evenly matched as they are now, Mark Taylor emerged from a desperate form slump with a gritty hundred in the second innings at Edgbaston. It couldn't save the Test, but it turned Australia's tour around. Everything in the Australian team flows from the captain - his confidence is their confidence.

Simon Katich also gained vital time at the crease - his only other knock this summer was a 36 not out against Bangladesh. But England achieved one notable success themselves. Andrew Flintoff has been short of time at the crease this summer. His top score before today was 44 and his previous best against Australia was 45. He is England's talisman, and like Ponting, his success or failure will be instrumental in the outcome of the Ashes.

For the second time in just over a week, England showed that they could fight: in the Lord's final they came back from 33 for 5, here they bounced from 45 for 4 to 223 for 8. But while such spirit will please Duncan Fletcher, what will alarm him is yet another failure from the top order. Even at Headingley, the scene of their nine-wicket triumph, England's opening overs at the crease were shaky.

It was the same story today as Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss rode out the Lee/McGrath storm before Strauss fell immediately to Mike Kasprowicz and kicked the ground in disgust. Trescothick offered three unconvincing prods in a row off Kasprowicz before finally edging the fourth, and Michael Vaughan's miserable one-day form - one fifty notwithstanding - returned with a vengeance: he will be itching to get back into the Test arena. Australia claim to have worked out England's batting weaknesses, and today they were clear to see. But how they fix them ahead of the Ashes is unclear.

Kevin Pietersen will probably not feature, though. The crowds may have hailed him loudly when he stepped out, but he failed to lift England out of a hole when they needed him early on. After a few trademark leg-side slaps, he was soon back in the pavilion. Graham Thorpe, the tortoise to Pietersen's hare, is looking more and more likely to play in the Ashes - as long as his back holds out. KP is a man for the big occasion - and that will count in his favour when the selectors gather around the table - but Thorpe is the man for a crisis.

Jason Gillespie might well have played himself out of Ashes contention, with another miserable performance. Usually Mr Reliable, Gillespie has taken just one England wicket this year, at a cost of 252. Ouch. It was quite apparent that England had chosen to go after Gillespie and he proved an easy target - once he got on to bowl, that is. Ponting chose to keep him out of the attack until the middle-over lull, and instead, brought Brett Lee back in a bid to remove Pietersen. It was a successful ploy as well. With a five-wicket haul, Lee must have sealed his Test place - but Gillespie is teetering on the fringes. After seven unconvincing overs which cost 42 runs, Ponting decided not to persevere with him.

Speaking of ineffectiveness, Vikram Solanki was just that as England's Supersub - he wasn't required to bat, and he wasn't ever going to bowl. The problem with the new Supersub rule is that it favours the team that calls correctly. As the toss can already give the victors an undue advantage, it makes little sense to increase the disparity by requiring teams to name their 12 before the coin is flipped. As it was, England lost and Solanki did nothing that couldn't have been done by a conventional 12th man.

These are unconventional times, though, and people must adapt. Security at Lord's certainly did, visibly stepping up their efforts: from the sniffer dog in the press box to increased security on the gate. This meant long queues to enter the ground, but nobody minded - and it was the Londoners who struck the first psychological blow of the day, by turning out in full force by means of bus and Tube to show that they will not be cowed by terrorism.

And the teams put on a decent enough show for them, although it was far from the thrilling tie of eight days ago. Never mind. After Tuesday, the real thing is set to begin.