Adam Gilchrist was at his blistering best but his team-mates struggled to find the same form
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Adam Gilchrist provided the fireworks but Sri Lanka's seamers had the extinguisher at the MCG, where Australia's blistering start of 0 for 107 in the 15th over somehow turned into their first loss in nearly three weeks. Chasing 222 Australia were cruising as Gilchrist belted 83 from 50 balls, but a collapse of 6 for 16 in ten overs ensured Sri Lanka regained some pride with a 13-run win.
It almost turned back Australia's way as Nathan Bracken and Brett Lee combined for a 35-run tenth-wicket stand that brought them within sight of victory, but Sanath Jayasuriya had one final trick in his last match on Australian soil. With 14 needed from two overs, Jayasuriya, who had not been handed the ball until then, came on and bowled Lee (37) first ball to seal the win.
The result did not mean anything - Sri Lanka are still flying home on Saturday and Australia are safely in the finals - but it did highlight why some fans will miss the tri-series, despite its tired format. Australia wanted to enter the deciders with winning momentum, but they were also keen to get some chasing practice after batting first in all but the series-opening wash-out. On the strength of their middle-order efforts, Ricky Ponting will be hoping to win the toss in the finals.
Admittedly MCG pitches have been hard to bat on all season, but the way Gilchrist was going it looked like this surface was friendlier. When he fell, it became a minefield. Ishara Amerasinghe and Nuwan Kulasekera, previously fodder for Gilchrist's cannon, turned into snipers and clinically picked off his team-mates.
Michael Clarke was bowled by Amerasinghe for 0 from 11 balls, Ponting was lbw to Kulasekera for 1 from 11, Andrew Symonds feathered a leg-side catch behind off Amerasinghe for 0 and Lasith Malinga had Brad Haddin lbw for 7. When Michael Hussey was bowled by a ripping inswinger from Chamara Kapugedera for 5, they were still 80 short and the tail could not save them.
A brave gambler could have had huge odds on the result after Gilchrist's quick start in his final game at the MCG. His first 17 balls brought only 9 but he raced to his half-century from 35 deliveries, bringing up the milestone with a vicious square cut for four off Malinga. Fourteen came from that over but Malinga was fortunate compared to Amerasinghe. Gilchrist picked up 18 off Amerasinghe's second over, launching fours over mid-off and midwicket, pulling a six forward of square and then running four more when his well-timed drive over cover strangely pulled up.
The Sri Lankans gave Gilchrist a guard of honour as he came to the crease - Brad Hogg, Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan received the same gesture from their respective opponents - and they must have been thankful they will never again be subjected to his power. It took an awesome catch to deny Gilchrist triple-figures as Malinga ran around from long-off and clutched a diving chance to give Kulasekera his first wicket.
There was no doubt about Gilchrist's dismissal but his opening partner James Hopes, who made 28, fell in bizarre circumstances when Muralitharan's doosra brushed the off stump. The bail took so long to dislodge that there was confusion over how it fell, but replays eventually confirmed Hopes was bowled. That was the moment that sparked Australia's collapse, and they must have wished their target was smaller.
It easily could have been. Sri Lanka stumbled to 3 for 42 but Australia appeared content to let Sri Lanka knock up a competitive total and test their chasing abilities. Bracken finished with 4 for 29 from his ten overs, but three of those came in the dying stages and it was not until the final ball of the 50th over that the visitors were dismissed for 221. They had Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan to thank for their fightback.
Dilshan batted sensibly, taking the easy runs on offer when the field pushed back and striking only three boundaries in his 62. He had late support from Chamara Silva, whose 35 was his highest score in a forgettable tournament. Silva and Dilshan added 60 for the sixth wicket after Dilshan and Jayawardene had combined for 64 for the fifth. Jayawardene's 50 from 66 balls featured a couple of cracking cover-drives to the boundary and he launched Mitchell Johnson over long-on for four more.
There was not a great deal for Sri Lanka to cheer early in their innings, and the crowd's biggest reaction was saved for a crash between Dilruwan Perera and the bowler Lee. Perera was trying for a quick single, dropped his bat and could not regain his feet, forcing him to comically stumble and crawl towards the crease where he slammed his hand in safe ground just before Symonds' throw hit the stumps.
Moments like that hinted that the dead-rubber might not be totally forgettable and the later feats of Gilchrist and Sri Lanka's bowlers turned it into one of the tournament's most memorable games. It was also proof that what occurs on the field can be just as entertaining as what happens off it, a point that Australia and India should remember leading into the finals.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo