MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - As injured batsman Usman Khawaja walked gingerly to the crease in a brave bid to complete Australia’s unlikely run chase against South Africa, it became clear the defending champions were going to great lengths to avoid a Cricket World Cup semifinal against archrival England.
It didn’t happen.
In a thrilling match under lights in Manchester that ended the five-week group stage, Australia fell to a last-over, 10-run loss to South Africa and slipped off the top of the World Cup standings.
Instead of playing trans-Tasman neighbor New Zealand in the first semifinal on Tuesday, the Australians will take on host England — which went into the tournament as the top-ranked team — on Thursday in the latest chapter in one of sport’s biggest rivalries.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a blockbuster,” Australia captain Aaron Finch said of the match at Edgbaston. “It doesn’t get much bigger than that.”
India won the 10-team group with 15 points, one more than Australia. England finished third on 12 points and New Zealand had 11.
India will take on New Zealand in the first semifinal, in Manchester.
Australia heads into the playoffs on the back of just a second loss in nine group games, and with some injury worries.
Faf du Plessis’ 93-ball 100 underpinned South Africa’s 325-6, and two pieces of magic from wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock — a cheeky run-out and a leaping, one-handed catch — left the Australians struggling on 119-4, with Khawaja also retired hurt with a left hamstring injury.
David Warner (122) and Alex Carey (85 off 69 balls) put on 108 for the fifth wicket, but neither could see Australia home as shadows lengthened on the field.
Khawaja hauled himself to the middle to bat after the fall of the seventh wicket, with his team needing 51 runs off the final 28 balls, and struck two fours in nine balls before departing for 18.
Australia required 18 to win off the last over — or 17 for the tie that would also have seen the team finish in first place on net run-rate — but Nathan Lyon was caught in the deep off the next-to-last ball.
Finch was adamant Khawaja didn’t aggravate his injury by coming back out to the middle, but said the No. 3 batsman was unlikely to play the semifinal.
“He wanted to go out, especially when we got as close as what we did,” Finch said.
Allrounder Marcus Stoinis aggravated his side injury and also faces a scan.
The Australians might have fallen short but at least they have Warner in sublime form for the semifinals.
The left-handed opener has scored 638 runs in nine innings — just short of the tournament-high 647 racked up by India’s Rohit Sharma — and now has three centuries to his name this tournament.
“That was as good an innings he could have played,” Finch said. “He is a big game player, he loves the big stage.”
Australia ideally needed him to last until the end of the chase but he succumbed in the 40th over to a superb diving catch by Chris Morris and departed to jeers, once again. Indeed, South Africa’s catching was excellent in general, not least from De Kock who soared into the air to take Glenn Maxwell (12) soon after flicking a ball onto the stumps — while looking the other way — from Kagiso Rabada’s throw to run out Stoinis (22).
Earlier, the South Africans got off to a fast start by reaching 73-0 by the end of the opening powerplay. Lyon’s offspin removed openers Aiden Markram (34) and De Kock (52), only for Du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen (95) to quickly restore Proteas supremacy with a third-wicket stand of 151 runs.
Du Plessis reached three figures in 93 balls — and was dismissed off his very next delivery for 100. The highlight of his innings was a straight six off paceman Pat Cummins after advancing down the track.
Van der Dussen has yet to convert any of his seven ODI fifties, however. He couldn’t get enough of the strike in the final two overs and tried to smash the last ball of the innings for six to reach his ton. He was caught on the boundary by Maxwell.
Australia paceman Mitchell Starc (2-59) bowled erratically but took two late wickets to move to 26 for the tournament, tying the record for a single World Cup with compatriot Glenn McGrath (from 2007 in the Caribbean).
South Africa scored its highest total of a tournament in which the team finished with three wins in nine games.
Du Plessis predicted an India-England final. Despite their injuries, the Australians might have something to say about that.