England will spend most of the summer praying for Australian incompetence, but last night at the Oval they were thankful for a bit of fight as the identity of the semi-final line-ups went down to the wire.
The bizarre prospect of England supporting Australia emerged as it appeared Sri Lanka could be heading for a crushing win which would have propelled them to the top of Group A. If they had bowled Australia out for below 164 England would have been pushed to second on net run rate and a very tricky semi-final against India in Cardiff on Thursday.
Instead English wishes were granted with Sri Lanka winning by 20 runs to finish second, leaving England to play South Africa at the Oval tomorrow, and Sri Lanka facing India the following day. Alastair Cook said that he did not care about the identity of England's semi-final opponents, but India have been the team of the tournament so far, while South Africa have been slow to hit their stride.
The Oval is also a quicker, bouncier pitch which would suit the England batsmen and -seamers looking to take wickets, whereas Cardiff's short boundaries will appeal to the Twenty20 biffers in the India side. None of this will interest Australia, a team yet to win a match since -arriving in England and who finished bottom of the group after winning the previous two tournaments.
Going back to the tour of India, this has been a shattering run of results for the side. There was a chance of picking up a consolation win as Xavier Doherty and Clint McKay put on 43 for the last wicket in 13 overs. An Australia victory would have done a favour to New Zealand by qualifying them ahead of Sri Lanka. Old rivalries were well and truly mixed up. But Sri Lanka deserve their place in the last four and Tillakaratne Dilshan took a brilliant caught and bowled to seal victory and spark wild jubilation among their large group of supporters.
"The England loss dictated the way we played today," George Bailey, the Australia captain, said. "Losing that first game was our major cock-up. There is probably not a great deal of confidence there [in the squad] but the Ashes is a different mindset going from one-day cricket to a Test tour."
Shane Watson and Phil Hughes, two one-day players in the Ashes squad, are likely to play for Australia A this week to gain exposure against a red ball but Michael Clarke will not be risked before the first official warm-up of the Test leg of the tour.
Australia's bowlers gave them hope by restricting Sri Lanka to 253 but the run-rate equation meant they had to knock-off their target in 29.1 overs to edge into second spot. With 15 overs of power play at their disposal the target was not impossible and Glenn Maxwell briefly showed why he is nicknamed the "Big Show" with some early thumping shots. Maxwell hit five fours and a six as Australia raced to 59 off six overs but had to constantly battle the balance between risk and reward.
Big shots carry big risk and Hughes was caught behind before Lasith Malinga's slower ball yorker-bowled Maxwell. Bailey was then run out playing the kind of cricket drummed-out of -players at schoolboy level. In trying to run a quick leg bye, Bailey took his eye off the ball believing his partner was running to the danger end.
Bailey was so far short that he was striding up the pavilion steps before the third umpire delivered his verdict. Matthew Wade slapped a straight six as Australia kept chasing their target but hopes faded when he was caught off a leading edge.
The tournament was over for Australia but winning the game was a possibility with plenty of overs to spare. Adam Voges fell one short of a half-century but Doherty and McKay both made their highest ever one-day scores.
Sri Lanka had the easier task at the start of the day, knowing a win would guarantee a semi-final place, and could play with caution, backing their bowlers to limit Australian batsmen going for broke. They lost two wickets with 20 runs on the board but have such experience and depth in their batting to cope with new-ball setbacks.
Mahela Jayawardene is one of the finest players in the world in all forms of cricket and strode past the mark of 11,000 one-day international runs during his innings of 84. He skillfully used the pace off the ball to find the gaps in the field before opening up against the older ball in the final phase of the innings.