Cricket: England suffer final indignity

Stewart's shattered army reserve their worst for last and head home losing six of their last seven matches
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND began the Carlton & United Series with the energy and resolution of well-drilled soldiers, but they ended it with all the power and intensity of a pack of brownies. By the time Shane Warne dismissed the hapless Alan Mullally with a beautifully directed flipper in Melbourne yesterday to complete Australia's 2-0 win in the finals of the Triangular tournament, England had nothing left to give.

Not that for the previous six hours they had offered much. It was a perfectly shambolic way to lose the last chance of taking something, anything, from this long tour. Defeat by 162 runs was the second largest inflicted on England in 292 one- day internationals; their score of 110 was their third lowest. Both edged out the previous lows (beaten by 164 runs against West Indies in St Vincent in 1994, and totals of 93 and 94 both against Australia in 1975 and 1979) only because of a belated, primitive swing or two.

The grotesque fact is that England won four of their first five matches in this tournament and then lost six of their last seven. There were some in that run that they should have won, including, crucially, the first final, but they ended at their weakest. Australia saw what confronted them and did what all good teams do, applied the throttle and headed for home.

After losing the toss, England were simply never in the match. Australia scored at least 20 more runs than was strictly necessary to give them the advantage, which meant England's reply had to start well. Falling to 13 for 4 before the fourth over was finished does not meet this criteria. The rest of the match was played out merely to meet the obligations of the tournament regulations.

It was a pretty abject conclusion, but perhaps the real damage had been done in the first final in Sydney three days earlier. Then, England were on the verge of disproving the theory that they had peaked much too soon in this competition. They were 35 runs from victory with six wickets and seven overs left. It was in the bag and they blew it.

As Alec Stewart observed last night, that was the defeat which truly grated because it should have been a victory. He knew that they had committed the professional sportsman's unpardonable sin: letting slip a winning position. The delay of 24 hours to the second final, caused by heavy rain, cannot have helped. They had more time to dwell on the first defeat, while the good intentions to change got further away as the plane home got nearer.

England subsequently played like tired and dejected men. It was probably inadvertent and they still tried to burst every sinew in the cause. But that could not conceal what they felt. When Australia's batsmen began to take the game away there were hands on hips, heads looking to the ground, silly and despairing fielding errors. We had been this way before.

A 2-0 defeat in the Carlton & United Series in Australia in February does not exactly wreck plans for the World Cup in England in May but it does not reinforce them much either.

England's squad of 15 has to be named by 31 March, so there is no time to change it much, but there has been evidence that some of the players who have competed recently may not be up to it. The fatigue displayed by the likes of Nasser Hussain, who did well in the Ashes but who has looked increasingly out of sorts since and failed to meet the team's demands, should be taken into consideration, as well as the lack of alternative candidates.

But the shortcomings have been obvious, as Stewart admitted in a post- match conference when he sounded as though a huge weight had been lifted. The team had lost, sure, but he was going home soon. He is nothing if not a true pro, and you had to feel sympathy.

He rejected the possibility of tiredness, but he said: "We played some good cricket over the first five games but the truth is that we didn't make enough runs throughout. Graeme Hick got three hundreds but we lost two of those matches. Too many of us got twenties and thirties and you don't win matches with those sorts of scores."

The bowling by contrast has been almost uniformly good, rarely spectacular but never dominated. Perhaps the captain could be cuter with his changes. Predictability is not only the curse of one-day cricket, it is also a sure way to start losing.

One of the delights of a series which was frequently attended by controversy as well as huge crowds has been the leadership of Shane Warne. He attacked in every conceivable situation, probably, by his own admission, overly so. He was never afraid to gamble. Of course, it was easy for him yesterday, but probably only he would have had three slips, a gully and a short leg. Like being at proper cricket, mused one of the one-day cynics.

Australia's total of 272 was again the result of a concerted, collective effort. The early loss of Mark Waugh is a bonus to any opposition but Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting then blazed away. When England managed to snare them both with smart catches in the space of three overs the game was well-balanced again.

But Darren Lehmann and Damien Martyn played measured strokes in those crucial middle overs. They eschewed the boundaries, found the gaps, played the percentages and accumulated. Though Robert Croft was dutiful, England looked impotent. Lehmann's 71 contained only four boundaries but took just 75 balls, Martyn's stately 57 lasted 80 balls.

When they went, the others obliged. The costliest over was the last. Mullally served up a full toss which Shane Lee, having previously been dropped by Hick on the opposite boundary, thrashed over the leg side for six. To examine the effectiveness of this stroke further, Mullally delivered another full toss next ball with a similar result: 17 came off the over.

England needed quick runs, but not so quick perhaps that Nick Knight should risk a single in the area of Ponting. Stewart sent him back, Knight was too far down, Ponting retrieved the ball calmly and accurately: 9 for 1. Hick fell for the sucker ball, chopping a short one from the great Glenn McGrath to third man. It seemed somehow odd that they should be joint Men of the Series: 10 for 2.

To the next ball, Hussain, who did not need this, was adjudged to have nicked one. He had not: 10 for 3. Neil Fairbrother then sparred at the marvellously unerring Adam Dale, who achieved some unexpected bounce: 13 for 4. Game and tournament over.

Stewart hit five defiant boundaries, Vince Wells somehow survived 54 balls but England were soon 88 for 8. They recovered and scored an unlikely 22 extra runs. Some dreadful shots were played towards the end but it mattered not. Home was on England's minds now. Soon, and worryingly, so will the World Cup.