Inept England suffer complete humiliation

England 176 Australia 177-2 Australia win by 8 wickets
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The Independent Online

There was no mass pitch invasion at The Oval yesterday, though, goodness knows, it would have been justified on the grounds of England's appalling display. Instead, the capacity crowd behaved with impeccable restraint, recognising this latest joust with Australia for what it was: a mismatch of embarrassing proportions.

The humiliation went further and, not content with their choice of the theme from The Great Escape from their earlier matches, England changed it by general consent of the team to Monty Python's "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life." If it was intended to humour people ahead of the Ashes, it backfired badly.

Let no one be kidded, the Test matches will probably be a different story but these six defeats in the NatWest Series have damaged England's confidence more than they care to admit.

England's problems are not new. Forget the disdain and speed (30.1 overs) with which the Australians knocked off the 177 runs needed to consign England to their 11th successive one-day defeat. Adam Gilchrist, with 80, and Ricky Ponting, unbeaten on 70, with their superb striking abilities, can do that to any attack. Instead, digest the fact that this was the eighth game in that losing streak that England's batsmen were bowled out in under 50 overs.

Unless some extraordinary bowling is going on, or conditions are frighteningly bad, you owe it to a capacity crowd to bat out your overs, even in a match as meaningless as this one. England won the toss, but, if that was a rarity in this tournament, what followed was all too familiar as wickets tumbled to a spate of hapless strokes.

For much of this tournament, England's batting has been weak and confused. Marcus Trescothick, whose chief weakness seems to be a propensity to tire easily, failed to see out the opening over for the second game in succession, after chopping on to Glenn McGrath.

Such an abrupt jolt justifiably invited caution and Alec Stewart and Nick Knight both had a long look at the bowling which excluded frills in favour of no-nonsense line and length.

It was a sound tactic. Yet, after adding 51 together in 14 overs, Stewart drove Brett Lee to cover, an act so careless that his immediate future must be in doubt. Although a fitness fanatic, Stewart will be almost 40 by the time the next World Cup comes round in 2003 and the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, may be better off blooding someone like Essex's young wicketkeeper, James Foster, whose century for Durham UCCE against Worcestershire yesterday showed that he can bat as well.

The next wicket to fall was Owais Shah, who, surviving a close call for lbw to an inswinger from Ian Harvey, promptly edged the outswinger that followed. One of the "positives" from England's disastrous campaign, Shah will get better. So, too, will Paul Collingwood, who has been forced to face some difficult situations as a newcomer.

Collingwood came in after Alistair Brown had been blasted out by a well-directed bouncer from Lee that was spooned to gully. With Knight batting fluently, the Durham all-rounder looked capable enough until McGrath's return forced a mistake, as the bowler probed the channel of uncertainty with his usual lack of fuss.

As wickets tumbled, Knight once again showed his worth until he, too, fell to a soft dismissal for 48, nibbling at one outside off-stump. With him gone, another low total looked certain until Ben Hollioake, Robert Croft and Andy Caddick chipped in to ensure that at least three Australians would probably have to put on their pads.

For Caddick, who made his highest one-day score of 36, the runs proved, if only to himself, that he can bat, something not particularly evident over the last 12 months. The only trouble is that, no sooner had that discovery been made, doubts over his bowling arose, with Gilchrist exacting some particularly rough treatment.

No one escaped his scything bat, not even Darren Gough, who followed a first-ball duck when he batted with five overs that cost 39 runs. With such a modest total, England were forced to attack with several close catchers, though nothing compared to the five Australia had for much of the time.

The tactic left huge gaps in the field, which to strokeplayers like Ponting and Gilchrist, is like leaving Billy Bunter in charge of the tuckshop. Runs came in huge dollops, with Ponting striking sixes to bring up both Australia's fifty as well as their hundred. Indeed, when Gilchrist fell caught and bowled by Croft for 80, the pair had added 124 in 137 balls.

A Croft maiden over, bowled to the king of not-outs Michael Bevan, received an ironic cheer before Ponting put England out of their misery. As a gentle warm-up for tomorrow's final against Pakistan at Lord's, yesterday's game was just what the Australians needed. For the Ashes, which begin on 5 July, it is an indicator that is becoming chillingly familiar.