England regret ponderous start

So England have been dumped out of their own one-day party. But at least, at last, they have shown glimmers of their potential. Today's match was a must-win encounter between two underachieving sides: the equivalent, as Michael Vaughan put it, of a cup final. And, as befitted such an occasion, both sides raised their game to unfamiliar heights, to produce some of the most compelling passages of play since India's epic victory over England, on this very ground two years ago.

Unfortunately for England, no matter how bold and bludgeoning the stand between Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss, they simply could not recoup their losses after the most ponderous start imaginable. After 15 overs, England had creaked to 38 for 2, in a period of play in which they had managed to be both too stodgy and, in the dismissals of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan, too flashy as well. England have not won a one-day international batting first since beating Pakistan in the World Cup, almost 16 months ago, and it shows.

As soon as Flintoff and Strauss had demonstrated the quality of the pitch, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan needed no second invitation to reply in kind. By the time they were into their stride, West Indies were ahead of the rate, and England were out of the tournament. Gayle, in his 100th one-day international, produced a particularly joyful performance, and one which put England's openers to shame. Had the roles been reversed, it is hard to imagine that he would have treated the enthusiastically erratic Tino Best with such kid gloves.

Vaughan's latest failure was of particular concern. His scores in this series have been 1, 12, 14, 12 and now 8, which makes a grand total of 47 runs in five innings. For all his undoubted prowess at Test level, the nuances of one-day cricket remain a mystery to him. It is not as if he is a one-day novice either - he is now one shy of his half-century of ODIs, but his average before this game was 24.45 - and plummeting. Questions have been raised in Parliament for less.

The presence of both Vaughan and Trescothick at the top of England's order has been a bone of contention throughout this series, and in Vaughan's case, it has almost certainly hindered his lazy-flair approach. But maybe, just maybe, the semblance of stability in England's middle order could tempt him back out of that crippling safety-first mindset. When fit and focussed, Flintoff's ability has never been in doubt: it is the inexorable rise of Strauss, on the other hand, that will give England some comfort as they brood over next week's missed final.

For a man who claimed in Sri Lanka that he wasn't the hard-hitting type, Strauss certainly packed a mean punch today. For his second match running at Lord's, Strauss's familiarity with his surroundings verged on the contemptuous, as he clattered another hugely composed hundred. As he and Flintoff reached the crescendo of their record-breaking 226-run partnership, they clicked through the gears like Evel Knievel approaching a row of double-decker buses, and for a fleeting moment, there could be only one winner.

The figures say it all. The first 50 runs of England's innings came from a stately 107 balls; the second 50 from a steady 74; the third from an even 50; the fourth from a sprightly 34; and the fifth from a supersonic 17. They then ruined the effect somewhat by losing four wickets in a hectic final over, but simply to have made it that far was a considerable improvement on England's previous efforts in this series, even if more than 60% of the innings was wasted in scoring barely 35% of the runs.

In last summer's second Test against South Africa, Flintoff demonstrated his fondness for the cosy confines of Lord's with a breathtakingly futile 142. For the third time in a home international, and for the second time in three days, a Flintoff century could not rescue England from defeat. He is in danger of inheriting Trescothick's unwanted jinx.

Mind you, had Flintoff been fully fit and available to bowl, there could have been a very different result. It is a consoling thought, but a very hypothetical one.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.