Australia is in shock. England were not meant to play like this. In fact, if the Australian media were to be believed, they were incapable of producing such fight, skill and nerve, especially against the world champions.
Andrew Flintoff's squad of humble triers were supposed to follow the script and meekly fall aside while Ricky Ponting's team of superstars walked away with yet another trophy. But England, and in particular Paul Collingwood, had other ideas under the floodlights of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, clinching a thrilling four-wicket victory over Australia with three balls to spare.
When Collingwood clipped Nathan Bracken through wide mid-on to hit the winning run, there was an eerie feel to this vast stadium. A long-faced crowd, with the exception of a couple of pockets of England fans celebrating with gusto, quickly made its way to the exits. They were not prepared for this.To their, and everyone's amazement, England had moved into a 1-0 lead in a best-of-three contest. The second final takes place in Sydney tomorrow.
How special must the moment have felt for a side who have been kicked around this vast continent as if they were an empty tin can. Very, judging by the reaction of Flintoff and his team in the players' viewing area. Tears of sorrow followed the humiliating Test defeat here seven weeks ago but it was sheer joy that brought water to the eye on this occasion.
Collingwood, for the second game in a row, was the hero scoring a quite brilliant unbeaten 120 as England successfully chased down Australia's respectable total of 252.
England would have been pursuing far more than five runs an over but for the exceptional way they controlled the finish to Australia's innings. Ponting and Matthew Hayden had taken their side to 170 for 1 by the 30-over mark and were set for a total well in excess of 300. But the nature of the game changed completely when, you guessed it, Collingwood took a magnificent diving catch at extra cover to remove the Australian captain.
The wicket started an England-style collapse in which the hosts lost nine wickets for 82 in 18.2 overs. Chaos reigned as Flintoff, Monty Panesar and Jamie Dalrymple ripped through Australia's middle order. By the end of the innings the gate attendant must have been wishing for a revolving door as the final six wickets fell for 23 runs in 36 balls.
Collingwood's contribution in the field went further than the catch. From backward point he brilliantly ran out Michael Clarke and Brett Lee with direct hits. The throws even brought applause from the Aussie fans.
A week ago Collingwood was bereft of form and confidence. He did not seem to know where his next score was coming from and his place in the team was understandably being questioned. But back-to-back hundreds against New Zealand and Australia, innings that have belatedly gained this England side respect here, have made him look an indispensable member of the team.
So what is the reason for the transformation? Hard work? A change of attitude or technique? According to Michael Vaughan, England's injured captain, it is swapping the colour of his bat grip.
Prior to Tuesday's eliminator against New Zealand Andrew Strauss had been sent a batch of pink bat grips by his bat sponsor, who are attempting to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. Strauss, needing no more than a couple himself, offered the remaining grips to the England team and Collingwood, prompted by Vaughan, agreed to see whether the change would alter his luck. After watching Collingwood strike a hundred in Brisbane, Vaughan approached his close friend and they agreed that it was all down to the pink rubber bat grips.
Ian Bell, donning a white grip, gave Collingwood excellent support and the pair put on 133 runs together for the fourth wicket. England needed the partnership after making a dire start to their run chase. When Lee and Bracken had reduced them to 15 for 3 in the sixth over there were fears of another Adelaide-style capitulation taking place.
Yet the confidence gained from consecutive wins prevented Bell and Collingwood from panicking. The pair showed Australia's opening bowlers the respect they deserved before gradually easing the initiative away from their opponents.
Bell had a stroke of luck on 18 when Glenn McGrath grassed a top edged pull at Bracken on the fine leg boundary. The drop proved costly and turned McGrath into an angry, chuntering brat on his 37th birthday. Bell wore the brunt of his ire until the umpire stepped in and told him to watch it.
McGrath's mood would not have been helped by Collingwood, who chipped the fast bowler back over his head for six. It was his only maximum and it was the lack of boundaries that made his chanceless innings so special. Collingwood placed the ball beautifully into the gaps and ran hard between the wickets. The approach put the fielders under pressure and on this occasion, with fumbles and overthrows, they cracked.
When Bell was bowled on 65 by a superb Lee yorker England still had plenty to do. A further 105 runs were required and Flintoff was struggling to pick the left-arm leg-breaks of Brad Hogg. He should have been run out on one and could have been caught on two. In desperation the England captain slogged at Hogg and the ball was sent over the wide mid-on boundary for six.
Collingwood completed his fourth one-day hundred with a scampered two and, at the end of the over, England required just 32 runs off five overs with six wickets in hand.
But with victory in sight Flintoff's luck ran out and he edged Shane Watson through to the keeper. Dalrymple soon followed and the wickets created alarm, leaving England needing 25 runs in the final three overs. It was then that Ponting made his mistake by opting to continue with Watson rather than bring back Bracken.
Collingwood pounced, sweeping the all-rounder for two boundaries in an over that brought 12 runs. McGrath was then smacked down the ground for four, a boundary that made the result a formality and left England one game away from leaving Australia with an unexpected prize.
Australia won toss
ÝA C Gilchrist c Flintoff b Mahmood 5
M L Hayden c Mahmood b Dalrymple 82
*R T Ponting c Collingwood b Panesar 75
M J Clarke run out 33
B J Hodge lbw b Panesar 5
M E K Hussey c Nixon b Flintoff 17
S R Watson c Bell b Mahmood 9
G B Hogg c Bell b Flintoff 10
B Lee run out 0
N W Bracken not out 3
G D McGrath b Flintoff 0
Extras (lb4 w9) 13
Total (48.3 overs) 252
Fall: 1-32 2-170 3-180 4-196 5-229 6-229 7-248 8-248 9-250.
Bowling: Plunkett 10-0-56-0; Mahmood 8-0-45-2; Flintoff 9.3-1-41-3; Panesar 10-0-44-2; Collingwood 4-0-21-0; Dalrymple 7-0-41-1.
E C Joyce c McGrath b Lee 6
M B Loye lbw b Lee 0
I R Bell b Lee 65
A J Strauss lbw b Bracken 0
P D Collingwood not out 120
*A Flintoff c Gilchrist b Watson 35
J W M Dalrymple run out 3
ÝP A Nixon not out 11
Extras (lb3 w7 nb3) 13
Total (for 6, 49.3 overs) 253
Fall: 1-1 2-14 3-15 4-148 5-222 6-225
Did not bat: S I Mahmood, L E Plunkett, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Lee 10-0-41-3; Bracken 8.3-1-38-1; McGrath 10-0-53-0; Watson 8-0-51-1; Hogg 10-0-52-0; Clarke 3-0-15-0.
England won by four wickets and lead three-ODI series final 1-0.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) and D J Harper (Aus).
Remaining fixtures: Tomorrow: Second final (03.15) (Sydney); Tuesday (if needed): Third final (03.15) (Adelaide).