There was no conflict yesterday. There was barely a contest. New Zealand beat England by 51 runs, their third consecutive victory, to take the series 3-1. New Zealand were assured, England were insipid, the victory margins of series and match were deserved and unsurprising.
Where England go from here is as uncertain as most of their cricket has been in the past ten days but their target of winning a major trophy by 2011 looks as wildly optimistic as suggesting the Government can save a deposit in a by-election.
With all due respect to a NatWest Series at home it is hardly a major ICC competition. But if they cannot compete properly in this, what hope when the stakes are higher. The home side are now seventh in the world rankings, and are where they ought to be. Under their new captain, Kevin Pietersen, England were again ordinary yesterday. New Zealand, all knowing their roles and using their judgement, were simply smarter.
From England will come the usual plaintive lament that they were missing their leader, Paul Collingwood, that they are getting better, that there are positives, that this is a side to take on the world one day. And so on and so on. The only reason for repeating this script is that it is the season for repeats.
There have been moments of glory in the past year, with unexpected victories at home against India and away against Sri Lanka. But England were well beaten in New Zealand in February and they have been all but outplayed again at home.
There is nothing wrong in losing but England have too often played gormless cricket. True, they were bound to miss Collingwood yesterday but then it was gormless cricket – failing to bowl overs in the abundant time allocated – which got him banned for four matches.
Pietersen put New Zealand in and all was going swimmingly – at least they were not drowning – until the last fifth of their innings, and then all hell broke loose. England had no answer.
The target of 267 was still within reach but not for long. Too many batsmen got in and got out, a familiar refrain this series, this year, this decade.
They came, they went as they have done so often before, three of them undone by the 19-year-old Tim Southee. To lose to New Zealand three games in a row (and actually in 14 of the 22 this decade) hardly represents progress. Only Owais Shah passed fifty, for the second match in succession, but for most of his occupation the cause was forlorn.
The tourists made 96 in their last ten overs, 61 in the final five. This happens in short-form cricket if enough wickets have been preserved and the advent of Twenty20 has probably raised the tariff even further.
They had lost wickets at fairly even intervals – the ninth, 14th, 19th, 32nd overs – and nothing much happened. It was as if they were working out what should be their target score and how many wickets they would need in hand to attain it.
England were sitting comfortably after 40 overs and when Graeme Swann ended Jacob Oram's characteristically fearless innings with the 60th ball of his spell in the 44th over they might have felt their cushions had been plumped.
To blame the bowling unit for the relative rampage that ensued would be excessive. But none of the triumvirate of Ryan Sidebottom, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad quite did what was required. Scott Styris, who had been all but becalmed on the sea where his international career has been drifting haplessly since the last World Cup, suddenly sprang into action. He executed a series of those short-arm jabbed shots which have long borne his signature on both sides of the wicket.
Although he made a half-century at The Oval last week, it might not be overstating the case to suggest that this innings has saved his international career. He was scratchy initially, propped up only by stubbornness. He was dropped on 13 at backward point by Ravi Bopara and escaped being stumped – just – when he was 39, though it is hard to opine that Tim Ambrose should have had the bails off any quicker (though the wicketkeeper put down a straightforward running catch earlier in the day and he has had a depressing series, as is the norm for English keepers).
Reprieved, Styris came alive in the death overs. His first 50 needed 75 balls, the last 37 which took New Zealand to par, occupied only 16. He was abetted by Grant Elliott, who appeared to be suffering no scars from his collision and dismissal at The Oval, save perhaps the quest for vengeance.
Thus, England were again in a contest for which, much of the time, they did not look equal. Ian Bell struck two of the sweetest leg-side fours that could be imagined in the first over. But even at that stage it was possible to guess what might happen, Bell to reach, say, 30, and then get out softly. In the event he was 27 when he played slightly across one slanting in from Mark Gillespie and was plainly leg before.
Alastair Cook, in for Collingwood, was familiarly caught behind and Pietersen, jaw jutting, slashed to point. England were never really in it and Bopara flattered to deceive. Neither Luke Wright nor Ambrose looked up to it. The Champions Trophy, the World Twenty20, the World Cup here they come. New Zealand, that is.
England won toss
J M How c Bopara b Broad (42 min, 26 balls, 1 four, 1 six) 22
†B B McCullum c Swann b Anderson (82 min, 57 balls, 1 four) 23
L R P L Taylor c Ambrose b Broad (18 min, 15 balls) 4
S B Styris not out (153 min, 91 balls, 5 fours, 3 sixes) 87
D R Flynn b Swann (49 min, 54 balls, 3 fours) 35
J D P Oram c Broad b Swann (52 min, 40 balls, 2 fours, 3 sixes) 52
G D Elliott not out (29 min, 17 balls, 1 four, 1 six) 23
Extras (lb13, w7) 20
Total (5 wkts; 50 overs) 266
Did not bat: *D L Vettori, K D Mills, T G Southee, M R Gillespie.
Fall: 1-39 (How), 2-54 (Taylor), 3-71 (McCullum), 4-124 (Flynn), 5-201 (Oram).
Bowling: Sidebottom 10-0-52-0, Anderson 10-0-46-1, Broad 10-1-50-2, Wright 6-0-36-0, Swann 10-0-33-2, Bopara 1-0-6-0, Shah 3-0-30-0.
I R Bell lbw b Gillespie (46 min, 34 balls, 5 fours) 27
A N Cook c McCullum b Southee (57 min, 38 balls, 3 fours) 24
*K P Pietersen c Oram b Southee (39 min, 23 balls) 6
R S Bopara b Vettori (47 min, 39 balls, 5 fours) 30
O A Shah c sub (Marshall) b Southee (109 min, 75 balls, 5 fours) 69
L J Wright b Vettori (24 min, 22 balls) 6
†T R Ambrose c sub (Marshall) b Vetorri (10 min, 11 balls) 2
G P Swann c McCullum b Mills (19 min, 16 balls, 2 fours) 12
S C J Broad c Flynn b Mills (18 min, 12 balls, 1 four) 5
R J Sidebottom not out (23 min, 11 balls, 1 four) 10
J M Anderson c Oram b Gillespie (8 min, 7 balls) 2
Extras (b1, lb10, w10, nb1) 22
Total (47.5 overs) 215
Fall: 1-53 (Bell), 2-60 (Cook), 3-86 (Pietersen), 4-101 (Bopara), 5-130 (Wright), 6-138 (Ambrose), 7-164 (Swann), 8-186 (Broad), 9-209 (Shah), 10-215 (Anderson).
Bowling: Mills 9-1-55-2, Gillespie 9.5-2-29-2, Oram 6-0-22-0, Southee 9-0-49-3, Vettori 10-1-32-3, Styris 4-0-17-0.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) and N J Llong (Eng).
Third Umpire: R A Kettleborough.
Match Referee: J Srinath (Ind).
New Zealand won by 51 runs.
New Zealand win five-match series 3-1.
Man of the match: S Styris (NZ).
Man of the series: T G Southee (NZ).