Best of 13 anyone? Well, maybe not. Still, instead of following a widely predicted script and suffering the first 7-0 series defeat in the history of limited-overs internationals, a mightily relieved England scrambled their way to victory here yesterday – though only after threatening to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Listen, after losing six NatWest matches on the trot to Australia, any old win should do for Andrew Strauss and Co, and a bruised and battered squad can at least fly to South Africa tomorrow night hoping that the worst is now behind them. But the way they stuttered in pursuit of a target of 177 will have done nothing to shorten the odds against them mounting a meaningful Champions Trophy challenge.
From 106 for 0 and apparently sitting pretty, England crumpled to 141 for 5 by producing a set of dismissals which pretty much summed up their problems with the bat throughout this series.
Strauss, having once again worked so hard to lead by example, played an unnecessary reverse sweep to fall to spinner Nathan Hauritz for the fifth time in seven innings. And when Joe Denly, his opening partner, was run out by Ricky Ponting's athleticism and accuracy from cover following a moment of mid-pitch hesitation, everyone knew it was game on.
Spectators could almost see England's nerves jangling – and it came as no surprise to witness the demise of Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah and Eoin Morgan in the space of 17 deliveries. Bopara went lbw to Shane Watson to bring the curtain down on what has turned into a nightmare summer for the Essex youngster after so much early promise, Shah edged behind one ball after lofting James Hopes for four and Morgan did likewise against Brett Lee while trying to cut.
Surely, having won an important toss and then been put in the box seat by Graeme Swann's one-day international best bowling figures of 5 for 28, England could not mess it up. Could they? Very nearly, as it happens, with the job still not quite done when Matt Prior poked a catch to cover when another 15 runs were needed. No-one was leaving the ground, that is for sure. But, between them, Paul Collingwood and Tim Bresnan managed to take England over the line with 10 overs as well as four wickets to spare, a result which means Australia must settle for occupying third spot – behind South Africa and India – in the one-day rankings, at least until after the Champions Trophy is done and dusted.
And England? "We're not exactly jumping for joy but it is nice to have avoided the 7-0," said Strauss. "We made hard work of the target but we got there in the end. Confidence is still a bit of an issue but hopefully once we get to South Africa people will come out and play a bit more to their potential. It has been an exceptional summer for cricket but we would like to have played better in these one-dayers."
Strauss's almost unblemished record at the toss has not done England much good in this series. But Ponting's latest incorrect call gave the home side a heaven-sent opportunity to pick themselves off the floor after last Thursday's deeply embarrassing 111-run defeat in Nottingham. There is no good way to go 6-0 down but that performance was simply inept.
Here, with an early start and following a heavy dew, conditions were just about ideal for James Anderson and Graham Onions – belatedly making his ODI debut – to knock Australia out of their stride for once. And while Anderson, in particular, failed to put the new ball in the right place as often as either he or his captain would have liked, the pair had both openers back in the hutch inside four overs.
First Watson and then last Thursday's century-maker, Tim Paine, edged deliveries that left them late as England sensed they might take control through seam and swing. Instead, Ponting and Michael Clarke kept the pacemen at bay with a menacing stand of 79 before Swann took centre stage at a venue where spin often plays little more than a bit part.
Bresnan and Collingwood, refreshed following his three-match break, prevented Australia's third-wicket pair from doing serious damage. But Ponting, especially, looked ready to make hay after completing a 57-ball half-century – until Swann struck gold. His fifth delivery turned sufficiently for the visitors' captain to drag a drive to mid-on, and England never looked back.
Clarke was run out by Morgan's sharp movement and quick throw from short fine leg and then another dangerman, Cameron White, had no answer to a ball from Swann that turned sufficiently to bowl him between bat and pad.
Leading edges accounted for Hopes and Mitchell Johnson, but England's off-spinner badly wanted a fifth wicket to complete his happy day, and it came with Lee playing outside another perfect delivery.
Having played so poorly for so long during this series, England could not possibly produce a faultless display. It was almost reassuring, then, to see Shah make a hash of two pieces of fielding because no-one likes to think their eyes have been deceiving them.
But at least Shah's occasionally used off-spin came in handy here, with Hauritz giving the Middlesex man a return catch, and when Mike Hussey holed out against Bresnan England knew that avoiding history was in their own hands.
The Riverside: Scoreboard
England won toss
S Watson c Swann b Anderson......... 0
†T Paine c Prior b Onions......... 4
5 balls 1 fours
*R Ponting c Collingwood b Swann......... 53
67 balls 8 fours
M Clarke run out (Morgan)......... 38
81 balls 2 fours
M Hussey c Denly b Bresnan......... 49
54 balls 4 fours 1 sixes
C White b Swann......... 1
J Hopes c & b Swann......... 11
23 balls 1 fours
M Johnson c Anderson b Swann......... 10
17 balls 1 fours
B Lee b Swann......... 0
N Hauritz c & b Shah......... 3
B Hilfenhaus not out......... 2
Extras (lb 1, w 4)......... 5
Total (45.5 overs)......... 176
Fall: 1-0 (Watson), 2-17 (Paine), 3-96 (Ponting), 4-110 (Clarke), 5-112 (White), 6-138 (Hopes), 7-158 (Johnson), 8-158 (Lee), 9-163 (Hauritz), 10-176 (Hussey).
Bowling: J Anderson 7-0-36-1 (6-0-25-1, 1-0-11-0), G Onions 9-1-28-1 (w3) (7-1-22-1, 2-0-6-0), T Bresnan 6.5-0-25-1 (w1) (6-0-24-0, 0.5-0-1-1), P Collingwood 7-0-37-0 (one spell), G Swann 10-1-28-5 (one spell), R Bopara 1-0-7-0 (one spell), O Shah 5-1-14-1 (one spell).
Progress: 50 13.3 overs. 100 25.5 overs. 150 40.1 overs. Pointing 50: 57 balls, 8 fours.
*A Strauss c Hilfenhaus b Hauritz......... 47
74 balls 4 fours
J Denly run out (Ponting)......... 53
78 balls 8 fours
R Bopara lbw b Watson......... 13
23 balls 1 fours
O Shah c Paine b Hopes......... 7
8 balls 1 fours
P Collingwood not out......... 13
22 balls 2 fours
E Morgan c Paine b Lee......... 2
†M Prior c Ponting b Hilfenhaus......... 11
14 balls 2 fours
T Bresnan not out......... 10
19 balls 2 fours
Extras (b 4, lb 2, w 6, nb 9)......... 21
Total (6 wkts, 40 overs)......... 177
Fall: 1-106 (Strauss), 2-129 (Denly), 3-133 (Bopara), 4-137 (Shah), 5-141 (Morgan), 6-162 (Prior).
Did not bat: G P Swann, J M Anderson, G Onions.
Bowling: B Lee 10-3-33-1 (w3, nb1) (5-0-10-0, 5-3-23-1), B Hilfenhaus 6-1-38-1 (w1, nb6) (4-0-30-0, 2-1-7-1), M Johnson 5-0-29-0 (w2) (one spell), N Hauritz 8-0-30-1 (nb1) (one spell), J Hopes 6-1-29-1 (one spell), S Watson 5-0-12-1 (one spell).
Progress: 50 11.3 overs. 100 19.4 overs. 150 34 overs. Denly 50: 75 balls, 8 fours.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) & N J Llong (Eng).
TV replay umpire : P J Hartley.
Match referee: R K Illingworth.
England win by four wickets.
Australia win seven-match series 6-1.
Previous results in series
The Oval, 4 September Australia won by four runs Australia 260-5 (50 overs); England 256-8 (50 overs)
Lords, 6 September Australia won by 39 runs Australia 249-8 (50 overs); England 210 all out (46.1 overs)
The Rose Bowl, 9 September Australia won by six wickets England 228-9 (50 overs); Australia 230-4 (48.3 overs)
Lord's, 12 September Australia won by seven wickets England 220 all out (46.3 overs); Australia 221-3 (43.4 overs)
Trent Bridge, 15 September Australia won by four wickets England 299 all out (50 overs); Australia 302-6 (48.2 overs)
Trent Bridge, 17 September Australia won by 111 runs Australia 296-8 (50 overs); England 185 all out (41 overs)