A contest to ignite the Women's World Cup

It was the game this tournament had been crying out for. A thriller with all the trimmings. Memo to TV networks: make some room on your shelf of rain-delay rippers. This will fit in nicely.

Not for the usual reasons. No-one shot the lights out or tore the game apart for a sustained period. Instead, this was a 100-over test of nerve, in what could very well end up as a preview of the World Cup Final a fortnight from now. Give us another of these and we should be so lucky.

Finding ways to bounce back after a slew of self-inflicted wounds across the game, then hanging tough at the death, Heather Knight's side hinted that they have something special going on. Just as the Australian machine started to chug, they were able to derail it. In turn, they have fully earned their new position at the top of the table with two games to play.

In particular, 23-year-old left-arm spinner Alex Hartley displayed class beyond her experience. It takes some serious guts to keep throwing the ball up at Meg Lanning. When she convinced the Australian skipper to go for a dance on 40 - the ball passing her edge and onto the stumps - the trajectory shifted England's way and never turned back.

Earlier, two veterans at the other end of their careers, Katherine Brunt and Jenny Gunn, combined for 84 vital runs through happy hour. England looked ripe to be bowled out for 200 when they came together at 174 for 6. By the time they were done, Australia required the highest successful World Cup chase.

Beth Mooney and Nicole Bolton started in the steady manner they have throughout. There is a model and it works: lay the foundation, let the superstars do the rest. It was ticking along. But Hartley and Gunn's introduction to the attack ended both their days abruptly.

The next part of Australia's plan is where Lanning and Ellyse Perry suck the oxygen out of a contest. They do it better than anyone. Even with the former's shoddy shoulder, it was all going broadly to script, the fifty partnership coming soon enough. Sure, they still needed plenty, but they had this.

But when Hartley went through Lanning, their 15-ball battle bringing only four runs for the skipper, the squeeze was on. Hartley said she had to "keep chill" when bowling in the contest so as not to get overly nervous. "Before that ball, I was like 'Quicker ball? Slower ball? Quicker ball? Slower ball?" she said. "I was like: Right. Slower ball. So it paid off, it worked."

That it did. The five overs between 35 and 40 - notionally the Powerplay - was anything but. Australia absorbed 19 dot balls and just 16 runs as Elyse Villani struggled to hit the ball off the square. "Rotation of strike is something we need to look at," observed Lanning.

There was a further twist when Perry - fighting to keep her side alive as the required rate climbed into double digits after reaching her 21st half-century - was dropped by Nat Sciver at midwicket. It wasn't the first straightforward chance the hosts shelled. But rather than bottling it, the same fielder took a considerably harder catch to remove Perry in the next over.

Late hitting from Alex Blackwell then Alyssa Healy then - belatedly - Ashleigh Gardner meant that Australia needed 22 from the final two overs, and 16 from the last and ultimately six from the final ball. But in practice, when Gardner was taken on the rope by Brunt with two balls to go they had done enough for a first World Cup win against Australia since 1993.

Leading into the match, England were all smiles. Their chilled-out entertainers had spent three games since their shock loss to India clobbering all-comers. When Sarah Taylor blasted Perry out of the attack in the space of an over, there was nothing to suggest this wouldn't continue. Twitter exploded: find a TV, she was on one.

But to Kristen Beams' first delivery she inside-edged onto her stumps trying to flick with her back leg in the air. Ironic, as to that point Taylor had been doing it with the proverbial leg in the air. Moments later though, Sciver's first boundary brought 1000 ODI runs in 943 balls; the quickest to that mark. If Taylor doesn't get you, Sciver must. Or Knight. Or Beaumont.

Against this trend, England burned start after start after start. Except for Knight: she never got going. When Sciver fell for the dibbly-dobbler trick, holing out to Villani's very-part-time seamers, they had work to do. Tammy Beaumont battled hard, but she was the next to throw it away, top-edging an Ashleigh Gardner full-toss back one short of 50. Danni Wyatt was the last of the set, compiling a convincing 27 before missing a sweep.

Knight said before the game she believed in England's depth. That now needed proving. Gunn came together with Brunt halfway through the 38th over. Aside from a difficult dropped catch by the keeper Healy, they flourished with the freedom their coach Mark Robinson routinely talks about when discussing his side. They batted as he preaches.

The hitting was crude but effective, clearing the rope three times. The best was Gunn's bomb over midwicket to bring up the fifty stand. "Our batters are normally too good so I don't get a go," she said. "But it is still like old times. She (Brunt) still tells me what to do." Seventy-six runs were added in the final ten overs.

Australia's bowlers had a dirty day. Not least Perry, overlooked for death-bowling duties in favour of Villani after the talisman delivered five wides, lacking any rhythm. All told, 32 extras were sent down, Lanning swinging 18 bowling changes. Villani having 13 taken from the 50th over - a scenario unheard of until recently, never bowling for Australia until last November - capped England's revival and set up the finale in the glorious sunshine.

With expectations expertly managed to lead into the competition, Gunn said they have been able to "play with freedom" from the outset. "To keep our nerve to get over the line is just massive," she added. After today, perhaps, it's time to start re-setting those expectations. It would be ahead of their time. But make no mistake: they could win this thing.