World sees Australia's blind spot
Indisputably, Australia have the pace bowling to win this World Cup. They also have the batting, now calibrated nicely by a shuffling of the order that has Steven Smith in optimum position to influence the course of the innings. But on a bewitching evening at the SCG, the hosts' suspected blind spot was revealed by a pitch on which they will have to win once more in order to progress to the tournament final.
Sydney did not spin quite so much as expected, meaning Sri Lanka's bowlers were rendered more or less defenceless by Glenn Maxwell and a recalled Shane Watson after the platform set by Smith and Michael Clarke. But their batsmen showed precious little fear of the Australian bowling attack once it became apparent that neither swing nor lift would be extracted by Mitchells Starc and Johnson.
Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Dinesh Chandimal were especially savage on Xavier Doherty, leaving many a nation to fancy themselves should they encounter Australia in similar climes during the knockouts. Since West Indies' hegemony was ended by India in 1983, high-quality spin bowling has been a significant element of all Cup-winning teams, and Australia would run against the grain of history by winning without it.
On their arrival in Sydney after brushing Afghanistan aside on a flier in Perth, the Australians were unimpressed by the 22 yards prepared for this match. A late season SCG pitch always has a chance of being slower, lower and less inclined to suit the pacemen than strips used earlier in the summer. Even so, Australia have become used to something offering a little more pace, bounce and carry than this one.
The bowlers were nonplussed when earlier this summer India's batsmen were able to hold their own on strips rather less lively than those of 2011-12. For the remainder of this tournament, they will need to find ways to prosper on similarly dull surfaces, given that Adelaide Oval and the MCG are drop-in wickets while, on the evidence of Sunday night, the SCG will be offering plenty to batsmen but very little to anyone other than a high-quality spin bowler.
None of this seemed likely to be too much of a concern when Michael Clarke, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell and Shane Watson were pulling together a gargantuan tally. The changes to the batting order first made in Perth, with Watson dropping out to allow Smith to move up to No. 3, were bedded down further here, and the resultant stability made for a stark contrast with the hectic rush of wickets witnessed against New Zealand in Auckland. Smith is fast becoming the cornerstone of the top six, and his new posting reflects that solidity.
Equally Clarke, Maxwell and Watson looked better for the change, playing the roles each looked most comfortable with. Clarke's decision not to take part in the giddy later overs at the WACA Ground was made to look sound as he took time to build an innings before accelerating with typical mastery of spin, and Maxwell benefitted greatly from the launchpad he was granted to career away to an emotional first hundred for his country.
Most significant of all was the freedom with which Watson played in his new middle-order posting. There is every chance he would not have played for the rest of the tournament had the SCG pitch not been quite so dry, but he took his chance with the sort of refreshed vigour that indicated his omission and the resultant hand-wringing by selectors and team-mates was actually some sort of relief. Certainly, Watson looked more concerned with hitting the ball and less with tackling his technical foibles. It remains to be seen whether he can retain his spot ahead of Mitchell Marsh for the rest of the tournament.
When Australia returned to the middle to defend 376, they were given a brief glimpse of former lopsided results against Sri Lanka, notably during the Test series of 2012-13, when Johnson had Lahiru Thirimanne fending a short ball behind. This proved less the start of a trend than a bowling outlier, and as Dilshan and Sangakkara became established, Clarke had to resort to more than new ball options.
Doherty has been a peripheral figure during this tournament so far, doing a lot of training and net bowling but never seriously being considered for the starting XI, even though when the squad was announced it was said he would be needed in New Zealand. In reality it looked as though the selectors had thought they could win the Cup without recourse to a full-time spinner, and thought it would be better for Nathan Lyon to be plying his trade in the Sheffield Shield rather than warming the bench for the national team.
Lyon is a bowler capable of turning a limited-overs innings, as he showed against Pakistan last year and more recently for the Sydney Sixers in their run to the Big Bash League final. But Doherty's flatter offerings do not pose the same questions, and are designed mainly to contain. Oddly, the selectors chose him despite knowing that the Cup's playing conditions were devised to encourage aggressive bowlers hunting wickets rather than run-stifling misers. Even more oddly, at a tight moment of Sri Lanka's chase, the selector Mark Waugh was heard to say on the broadcast that Doherty needed to be brave and toss the ball up in search of wickets. Waugh seemed unaware that Doherty has seldom if ever done this in ODIs.
Clarke is usually a great champion of spin bowlers, and he spoke supportively of Doherty after the game with the admission that a catch he dropped when Dilshan miscued might have been the key to his left-arm spinner securing better figures. But at the same time, Clarke conceded that entering the final 10 overs with Chandimal and Angelo Mathews firing, Australia were under genuine pressure - this was largely the result of a missing ingredient in the middle overs.
"The whole Sri Lankan batting innings they played well and we were under pressure, there's no doubt about it," Clarke said. "We had to continue to take wickets, and our attitude was we've got to find a way to take wickets, and it shows how far the game has come that you can even think about chasing 375 runs. But it's the skill of the players, the work they put in, and credit to the ground staff ... I thought the wicket was exceptional."
In the end, Australia were aided greatly by an ill-timed muscle strain for Chandimal, while James Faulkner proved his spinal importance to the team by bowling critical overs through the middle and dismissing both Dilshan and Sangakkara. It said much for the element missing from Australia's XI that Faulkner's over-the-wrist slower balls gained more purchase than anything from a spinner - he will be critical to any further progress beyond the quarters.
As they gathered to celebrate victory by a wider margin than seemed likely for much of Sri Lanka's chase, Australia's players showed as much relief as elation. They will have to find ways and means to excel through the middle overs at the pointy end of this event, and the pitches they are likely to encounter will not grant too much assistance for an otherwise fearsome pace-bowling attack.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig