The prospect of England leaving Australia's shores without a single victory is looking real after Kevin Pietersen was forced to return home with a fractured rib. Pietersen was struck in his right ribs by Glenn McGrath during an entertaining innings of 82 but he failed to prevent England falling to an eight-wicket defeat to Australia in the opening match of the Commonwealth Bank one-day series.
The injury, sustained when Pietersen came down the pitch to pull McGrath, will keep England's best batsman out of cricket for between three and five weeks. It ends his involvement in Australia and he will fly home early next week. He is expected to be fully fit for the World Cup which begins in the West Indies in March.
England will name a replacement over the weekend but Lancashire's Malachy Loye is the favourite to be called up. Loye is playing first-class cricket for Northern Districts in New Zealand and he has an excellent one-day record. Alastair Cook could be asked to return to Australia, too.
"I am absolutely distraught," Pietersen said. "It is not how I planned it. I did not want to leave Australia without any victories. I wanted to draw a line under the Ashes and give my cricket a real good go over the next month. I wanted to play as well as I could for the team to assist it in taking home some victories.
"I have been hit in the ribs a few times in my career and known that it would be OK but when it hit me I knew it was more serious - I couldn't breath properly. It restricted my stroke play immediately which was frustrating because I wanted to get a hundred at the MCG. The blow will not stop me playing the shot again."
The size of the defeat before a crowd of nearly 80,000 suggests that this was another inept performance by England yet there were several encouraging aspects other than Pietersen's innings. England batted with purpose and discipline after winning the toss and posting a respectable 242. Monty Panesar and Jamie Dalrymple bowled well in the middle of Australia's reply, too.
With an inexperienced bowling attack and against a batting line-up as potent as Australia's, England's total was never likely to be enough but it was heartening to see their batsmen apply themselves and set attainable goals. On far too many occasions England have targeted fanciful totals when batting first and in doing so have failed to post a competitive score. Indeed, in four of their past five one-day games their batting has been so over-ambitious they have failed to bat 50 overs.
The approach is undoubtedly a result of the meetings England have recently conducted among themselves, and it is to be hoped they continue to bat like this until the World Cup.
England would love to play a more adventurous game of one-day cricket but they do not have the players to do so. Michael Vaughan does not have a Sanath Jayasuriya, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag or Adam Gilchrist to call on at the top of the order and, as a side, England need to learn how to score 250 on a regular basis before they start looking at totals in excess of 280.
It takes time for a team to get itself out of the trough England are in and improvements will be gradual. The loss of Pietersen will affect morale going in to the crucial encounter with New Zealand on Tuesday and the management skills of Vaughan and the coach Duncan Fletcher will be tested to the limit.
England looked set for a score of 260 plus before Pietersen, on 73, was hit. He and Andrew Flintoff were just about to cut loose but the blow punctured England's charge. Flintoff hit several lusty blows in a quickfire 47 but received little support from the lower order.
Flintoff then proceeded to hand the initiative back to Australia by conceding 11 wides in the first over of Australia's reply. Paul Nixon, making his one-day debut behind the stumps, should have stopped two sets of five wides but both went racing to the boundary.
The errors gave Gilchrist all the encouragement he needed and he quickly set about England's seamers. Flintoff, Jon Lewis and James Anderson were hacked and scythed at and Australia reached 101 by the end of the 15th over.
Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden fell within three overs but the dynamic start meant that Australia were never under run-rate pressure. Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke were able to play themselves in and a comfortable victory was achieved with 28 balls to spare.
When asked about the strength of Australia and the uneven nature of the contest, Pietersen said: "I don't think there are any teams in the world that are ahead of Australia in any department. They are a formidable side and the confidence they gained from the Ashes series and the Twenty20 match is coming through. They are riding that wave at the moment. This England side contains fighters but it will take a real good team effort from us or New Zealand to beat them in the coming weeks."
England won toss
*A J Strauss c Hayden b Bracken 12
M P Vaughan c Hayden b Bracken 26
I R Bell c Hussey b Johnson 15
K P Pietersen c Symonds b Clark 82
P D Collingwood c Johnson b McGrath 43
A Flintoff not out 47
ÝP A Nixon lbw b Johnson 0
J W M Dalrymple c Gilchrist b McGrath 2
J Lewis c Ponting b Bracken 9
M S Panesar not out 0
Extras (b1 lb1 w3 nb1) 6
Total (for 8, 50 overs) 242
Fall: 1-20 2-47 3-73 4-168 5-206 6-207 7-211 8-232.
Did not bat: J M Anderson.
Bowling: McGrath 10-0-40-2; Bracken 9-0-46-3; Clark 10-0-58-1; Johnson 10-2-34-2; Clarke 8-0-35-0; White 3-0-27-0.
ÝA C Gilchrist c Nixon b Dalrymple 60
M L Hayden c Nixon b Panesar 28
*R T Ponting not out 82
M J Clarke not out 57
Extras (b1 lb2 w15 nb1) 19
Total (for 2, 45.2 overs) 246
Fall: 1-101 2-113.
Did not bat: M E K Hussey, A Symonds, C L White, N W Bracken, S R Clark, M G Johnson, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Flintoff 6-0-48-0; Lewis 8.2-1-43-0; Anderson 7-0-47-0; Panesar 10-1-46-1; Dalrymple 10-1-38-1; Collingwood 4-0-21-0.
Australia win by eight wickets
Umpires: I L Howell and S J A Taufel.