With five Tests to come and, who knows, perhaps another meeting in the final of this tournament, this is the first of seven possible ties this winter.
Certainly, these two suddenly look overwhelmingly likely to make it out of Group 2, with a place in the semi-finals all but confirmed for Saturday’s winners.
Australia have a strong cross-format core who England will see plenty of this winter. On Thursday, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins (at 28, the youngest player in their XI) were all excellent with the ball, while Steve Smith — as is pretty standard in the Ashes — was not dismissed.
Even David Warner scored some runs, which was rare in the last Ashes and even rarer of late. The last thing England need over the next few months is a player of Warner’s belligerent class hitting his straps, and he looked freer against Sri Lanka, although keeper Kusal Perera did shell a remarkably simple catch when he had 18.
England are a bit different. Only Jos Buttler and Dawid Malan seem certain Ashes starters of the likely — unchanged from their two victories so far — XI on Saturday, although Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow hope that is not the case. Mark Wood is highly likely to sit out as he gets over his ankle injection.
“Most of the team is quite different to the Test side for England, but it’s always huge [playing them],” said Cummins on Friday. “They’ve been just about the form team in the last few years in white-ball cricket. It’s a huge game, we know these guys really well, we know it’s such a big game in the context of making those semi-finals.
“There are a few players that will be coming out this summer [for the Ashes] from this side, so it will be great to get one on the board against them early.”
In this format, England are the more confident side, even if Australia are also two wins from two. Sri Lanka, England’s opponents on Monday, faded badly after a promising start, but did expose some shortcomings in Australia’s team balance.
With only four bowling ‘bankers’, Australia rely on Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis (or Mitch Marsh) to share four overs. Sri Lanka went hard at them, with a six from Maxwell’s first ball. In their total of 154, those 24 balls went for 51. England will look for a repeat, particularly if their right-handed hitters — Buttler, Bairstow and Jason Roy — can get after Maxwell.
Australia might fancy a good look at England’s fifth bowler, too. Moeen Ali is enjoying a fine tournament, with four wickets and an economy of five in his seven overs, which have come straight from the start of each match. As well as the job he is there to do, dismissing left-handers, he is outfoxing the right-handers who are going after him.
England’s attack is set up so that Moeen and Liam Livingstone, who was also successful against Bangladesh, share four overs. Even if they are hardly famed players of spin, Australia, stacked with right-handers, should be less forgiving, and Eoin Morgan might find himself with less wriggle-room. He might be tempted to bring in David Willey for a batter.
Much, therefore, rests on the shoulders of the two wristspinners, Adil Rashid and Adam Zampa. The much-improved Australian was terrific on Thursday night, taking two for 12 from his four overs.
Both sides will be pleased with their starts to the tournament, but one of them will have to do something new: set a target. That does feel a significant disadvantage when so much is resting on the toss; 12 of the last 13 matches have been won by the chasers. That is partly due to dew in night games, but also because the setters have been cautious.
So far there has been some decent fun fare, but the tournament is crying out for a close game — and perhaps a high-scoring one, too. There might be some atmosphere, but in most games it is not shining through the broadcast, elements of which are pretty stale at ICC events these days.
Hopefully, the old rivals can breathe life into the tournament — and provide a tasty appetiser for a thrilling winter of cricket.