Lee's redemption settles series
England suffered the ignominy of losing the NatWest Series inside four matches as Australia sauntered to a seven-wicket victory at Lord’s.
Needing to win to prevent Australia from wrapping up the seven-match series before the cavalcade moves to Trent Bridge, England floundered with the bat in the face of the contrasting challenges posed by Brett Lee (5-49) and Nathan Hauritz (2-23).
England were bowled out for 220 with 21 balls unused. Only when Andrew Strauss and Ravi Bopara shared a third-wicket stand of 67, did they appear capable of the permanency to build an innings.
Pictures of Lee, wheeling away in delight on four occasions, having produced carbon-copy yorkers to snare Matt Prior, Luke Wright, Stuart Broad and Adil Rashid, could be the indelible images of this series.
One could only ponder what impact the great fast bowler might have made in the Ashes series had he not been bedevilled by injury at the start of the summer.
Australia never looked remotely in trouble chasing a modest target, which they reached with 38 balls in hand.
The freedom afforded to them allowed Tim Paine to make his maiden one-day international half-century, while Ricky Ponting (48) and Michael Clarke (62 not out) also seized the opportunity for batting practice.
They taught England a lesson in one-day batsmanship, picking the gaps in the field well and putting together three fifty partnerships.
Four-nil down with three to play, the world champions look set to administer a series defeat every bit as crushing as the 5-0 whitewashes suffered by England at the hands of Sri Lanka in 2006 and India last winter.
Strauss’ luck continued with the coin, as he won a fourth successive toss and chose to bat. There were three changes to England’s team, with Joe Denly, Broad and Rashid replacing Paul Collingwood, James Anderson and Graeme Swann.
England showed some signs of capitalising early on, with Nathan Bracken intent on feeding Strauss’ square-cut.
But the England captain lost his partner in the fifth over. Denly, recalled to open the batting having sustained a knee injury ahead of the series, offered a regulation edge off Lee to Cameron White for 11.
Bopara moved down to number three, but almost followed Denly back in the next over when his attempted dab to third man fell short of Ponting at second slip.
Strauss dominated the first 10 powerplay overs as England racked up 59.
Though the England captain had his let-offs - he top-edged Lee past Paine’s outstretched glove and mis-pulled Mitchell Johnson to a vacant leg-slip - his innings was a reassuring constant. He went to his 18th ODI half-century from the second ball of the 16th over.
Bopara was less confident but ran well between the wickets in compiling 26. When he went lbw, missing an attempted sweep off Hauritz, England were 111 for two. Strauss declined to take the batting powerplay while they were at the crease.
From thereon in, England depressingly reverted to type. Strauss went into his shell after the loss of Bopara and succumbed in a manner undeserving of his efforts. Aiming across the line, he miscued Hauritz to gully.
Prior ended a run of 75 deliveries without a boundary by cutting Clarke’s spin for four. But such was England’s slow progress, that Hauritz was able to complete his 10 overs for just 23 runs, an economy rate now almost unheard of.
Having threatened to kick on with a rendition of Tillakaratne Dilshan’s ‘Dilscoop’, Prior was beaten neck and crop by a searing yorker from Lee with the score on 146.
Eoin Morgan and Owais Shah rallied with a stand of 31, but Bracken returned to rid Australia of the Irish left-hander when Paine pulled off a smart leg-side stumping.
Lee was summoned back to administer the coup de grace and in the 43rd over unleashed a succession of vicious yorkers, two of which claimed Wright and Broad. Rashid did well to dig out another full ball, but became Lee’s fifth victim soon after.
England’s innings lost all momentum when Shah was eighth to go in somewhat unfortunate fashion. He was caught at midwicket for 39 to a Shane Watson delivery that appeared to come above waist-height. Ryan Sidebottom was cleaned up soon after.
England needed to make several early breakthroughs to exert pressure. And Watson began at a fair crack, picking off Broad for a four in each of his first five overs.
No-one appeared more surprised than Watson when he was pinned back lbw by Tim Bresnan for 26.
Paine climbed into Sidebottom and continued to attack after Watson’s demise, feasting on a variety of loose bowling by Rashid.
In a wayward first over, the leg-spinner bowled three leg-side long-hops, though he did have Paine missed at cover by a diving Wright.
After a 50-run stand with his captain, Paine registered his half-century, from 60 balls. The wicketkeeper’s joy was short-lived - he top-edged an attempted sweep to a backtracking Prior for 51.
Paine’s exit brought together captain and deputy, and they barely broke sweat in a partnership of 60, before Ponting, two short of a personal half-century, overstretched by hitting straight to Bopara at extra cover.
It made no difference to the result, as Clarke and Callum Ferguson (23no) knocked off the remaining 53 runs.
Clarke drove beautifully in his half-century, no more so than in the dying throes when he pushed Broad through extra cover for four.
Australia will not receive the NatWest Series trophy until the seventh and final match at Chester-le-Street next Sunday.