All roads lead to the Ashes for England. They always did. From Jaipur and from Ahmedabad, where they still have unfinished business of sorts, the signposts point only to one place and one time: Brisbane, 11am, 23 November 2006.
That is when Andrew Flintoff's side will embark on their defence of the Ashes, when it is intended that the disparate components will come together and various fragile limbs will be mended, ready to repel once more the might of Australia. The Champions Trophy, from which they were all but summarily ejected on Saturday, has been a stepping stone on that journey, an important one perhaps and one in which England would dearly have loved to have performed more adequately, but a sideshow still.
It cannot excuse the worryingly inept exhibition of one-day skills in the six-wicket defeat against Australia in the Sawaii Mansingh stadium, which could yet lead to disastrous consequences. Much of it has been seen before in most parts of the world, and as recently as this summer in England when they were defeated 5-0 by Sri Lanka.
For years, England have made an unwelcome habit of turning their Test form on its head. But this time, they are four weeks away from meeting their old enemy again in the most important series of all and six months away from the World Cup. These are scary prospects.
No excuse then, but this time there may be an explanation. For all their protestations to the contrary, when a series of coaches and players made the Champions Trophy sound like the Holy Grail, England have used this competition as part of their preparation for Australia.
Duncan Fletcher, their coach, virtually admitted as much yesterday when he tried valiantly to put a gloss on a match in which his side lost 10 wickets for 86 runs after being 83 for 0 and then saw Australia knock the target off in 37 overs while treating the chief strike bowler with utter contempt.
He said it was understandable that Flintoff struggled with the bat - he was caught hooking with two men purposely out for the shot - because he has just come back after four months with injury.
"Fred has come straight back into the international arena to try to get his form, which is the right thing but never easy," said Fletcher. "He's got to play, he's captain, if he didn't play here, he couldn't play in Brisbane and that's what's crucial."
And on Stephen Harmison, his leading fast bowler whose 4.5 overs went round the park to the tune of 45 runs, he was also thinking of same time, same place. Harmison's action looks shaky, his confidence shakier. "He's just got to work harder and harder, not take things for granted. We have had this before. He didn't bowl well in the one-day matches against Sri Lanka in the summer but came back to be effective in the Tests when we needed him. He's always going to bowl the odd loose ball. Having lost last night, we've got to make sure he's firing and ready to go in Brisbane."
Ray Charles never had Georgia on his mind as much as Fletcher has Brisbane on his. The trouble for him is that England have been stupefyingly dreadful here. All out for 125 against India, they were, if anything, more culpable against Australia because they had such a good start. They still have West Indies to play on Saturday. The two forms of the game are indeed different and Australia will offer a host of different conditions. But poor cricket is poor cricket.
If somehow they can again separate the two forms as distinct entities (compartmentalise, the psychologists would say) all might be well. Australia, for all the bravura batting of Damien Martyn, did not look the force of yore. If Harmison worries England, then Glenn McGrath might be mildly disturbing the sleep of their coach, John Buchanan. At 36, it is premature to say McGrath is a spent force, but he is far from what he once was.
All of this still leaves England looking a shabby one-day unit. Under Fletcher's indisputably successful tenure, they have never sustained one-day form. Away, they have been woeful. Disregarding matches against sub-standard opposition (including Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) they have won only 17 of 62 matches away from home.
The suspicion is that some of them might not be quite up to it at this level. "We've got to get our thinking right," said Fletcher. "We're not getting the permutations right with [our] injuries. There are huge holes in the side and that has to be appreciated. In one-day cricket the roles are more defined. To some degree the World Cup is coming too soon, but you can be a surprise package." The Ashes are coming sooner.
Why England are not out - yet
England can still qualify for the Champions Trophy semi-finals. India must win both their remaining matches, against Australia and West Indies, and England must beat West Indies, leaving India on six points and the others on two. Australia are second on net run rate, a figure arrived at by dividing runs conceded by overs bowled and runs scored by overs faced. The latter figure is increased automatically to 50 if a side are bowled out before their allotted overs, as England have been twice. Australia's present nrr is +0.507 and England's -1.522. For example, if India beat Australia by scoring 250 and then dismissing Australia for 200, Australia's nrr would reduce to -0.012. If England scored 300 and then bowled out West Indies for 164, their nrr would be +0.006 and they would be on their way.
Australia won toss
A J Strauss c Gilchrist b Symonds 56
139 min, 90 balls, 6 fours
I R Bell c Hussey b Watson 43
87 min, 60 balls, 7 fours
K P Pietersen c Gilchrist b Johnson 1
5 min, 6 balls
*A Flintoff c Hussey b Watson 4
30 min, 15 balls
M H Yardy c Gilchrist b Watson 4
24 min, 15 balls
P D Collingwood not out 22
71 min, 38 balls, 1 four
J W M Dalrymple c Ponting b Johnson 3
19 min, 15 balls
ÝC M W Read c Gilchrist b McGrath 0
4 min, 2 balls
S I Mahmood c and b Bracken 8
15 min, 13 balls,
S J Harmison c Gilchrist b Johnson 1
3 min, 3 balls
J M Anderson b McGrath 15
17 min, 19 balls, 2 fours
Extras (lb3 w3 nb6) 12
Total (212 min, 45 overs) 169
Fall: 1-83 (Bell) 2-84 (Pietersen) 3-110 (Flintoff) 4-115 (Strauss) 5-125 (Yardy) 6-135 (Dalrymple) 7-136 (Read) 8-150 (Mahmood) 9-151 (Harmison) 10-169 (Anderson).
Bowling: Lee 9-3-25-0 (nb2,w1) (5-1-15-0, 3-2-7-0, 1-0-3-0); Bracken 8-0-38-1 (w1) (2-0-8-0, 4-0-19-0, 2-0-11-1); McGrath 9-1-36-2 (nb1) (4-0-27-0, 4-0-9-1, 1-1-0-1); Johnson 10-0-40-3 (nb1,w1) (6-0-25-1, 4-0-15-2); Watson 7-0-16-3 (nb2) (2-0-5-1, 5-0-11-2); Symonds 2-0-11-1 (one spell).
Progress: Power Play 1 (overs 1-10): 42-0. PP2 (overs 11-15): 70-0. PP3 (overs 16-20): 89-2. 50: 50 min, 67 balls. 100: 113 min, 146 balls. 150: 189 min, 247 balls.
Strauss's 50: 120 min, 78 balls, 6 fours.
ÝA C Gilchrist b Mahmood 10
29 min, 10 balls, 2 fours
S R Watson b Anderson 21
41 min, 26 balls, 3 fours
*R T Ponting c Strauss b Mahmood 1
8 min, 4 balls
D R Martyn c Read b Harmison 78
117 min, 91 balls, 12 fours
M E K Hussey not out 32
128 min, 85 balls, 2 fours
A Symonds not out 8
13 min, 10 balls, 1 four
Extras (b4 lb5 w6 nb5) 20
Total (for 4, 170 min, 36.5 overs) 170
Fall: 1-30 (Gilchrist) 2-34 (Ponting) 3-34 (Watson) 4-152 (Martyn).
Did not bat: M J Clarke, M G Johnson, B Lee, N W Bracken, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Anderson 9-2-31-1 (w3) (6-2-22-1, 3-0-9-0); Mahmood 10-0-57-2 (nb4 w2) (7-0-43-2, 3-0-14-0); Harmison 4.5-0-45-1 (nb1 w1) (2-0-26-0, 2.5-0-19-1); Yardy 10-1-18-0 (one spell); Dalrymple 3-0-10-0 (2-0-7-0, 1-0-3-0).
Progress: Progress: Power Play 1 (overs 1-10): 49-3. PP2 (overs 11-15): 92-3. 50: 60 min, 64 balls. 100: 96 min, 113 balls. 150: 149 min, 202 balls.
Martyn's 50: 54 min, 35 balls, 9 fours.
Australia win by six wickets
Man of the match: D R Martyn.
Umpires: B F Bowden (Aus) and S A Bucknor (WI).
TV replay umpire: D J Harper.
Match referee: J J Crowe.Reuse content