Australia (241-5) beat Sri Lanka (239-8) by five wickets
It is a prospect which only six months ago most agreed was impossible. Australia, winners of nearly half of the World Cups to have ever taken place, and the current holders, were in no state to retain their crown.
Their win/loss record since 2015 remained firmly in the red. England, after all, who had failed to even make the knockout stages of the last tournament, had beaten them in nine of their previous 10 encounters.
In the past three months, however, Australia have cantered in on a streak of eight consecutive ODI wins. Their authoritative, almost effortless, thrashing of Sri Lanka at Southampton on Monday makes it three from three in their official warm-up matches. The whispers have been growing for a while and now it is being spoken about in clear, unabashed tones; Australia will make it to the semi-finals and once there, well, it’s Australia, isn’t it?
While the semi-finals might be being talked about as a potential English stumbling block, for Australia, it is their launchpad. Saturday’s match against England was a day for voices to be heard and messages to be sent by a boisterous crowd on Steve Smith and David Warner’s first return to cricket in England since their ball-tampering bans. Monday’s warm-up against Sri Lanka, however, was one for reflection, consolidation and working out the finer details of Australia’s World Cup preparation.
Even the crowd acknowledged the futility of booing the naughty boys of world cricket on this occasion. "I think, to be honest, Warner and Smith will concentrate even more and score more runs," reflected one English fan about delivering such a reception. "It could have a negative effect for England," he added wryly. "I don’t think booing throughout the whole summer is going to help us at all."
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With no Warner (rested for precautionary reasons due to soreness in his leg), no English rivalry to fuel the mood and a Sri Lankan side with such low expectations that a win, against anyone, will be billed a triumphant upset, this provided little opportunity for the paltry crowd to test that theory. Smith, after a century two days ago, didn’t even feel the need for a bat, despite five wickets falling during Australia’s innings.
Instead, Australia were left to sort through the kind of problems that are good to have. Such as which two will open the batting between a trio of captain Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja (who top-scored with 89) and Warner, the leading run scorer in the recent IPL.
Then there is the question of whether Shaun Marsh, averaging more than 50 for Australia over the last year, will make the starting XI. That Maxwell sent down five overs of off-spin and Smith’s leg-spin was wheeled out too, both producing wickets, suggests Australia are plumping for an extra batter and one spinner. Even Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga is offering to help, as he revealed post-match that he had been giving Marcus Stoinis tips on executing the slower ball.
Whatever Australia decide, these are the intricate details of a plan which, ominously, appears to be falling into place at just the right time.