It comes straight from the realms of you couldn't make it up. To reach the final of the Champions Trophy, England must defeat Australia. The teams who all summer long have been locked in combat, playing 14 international matches, must do it one more time tomorrow.
Tired of the sight of each other as they must be, it is probably apt that it should conclude like this. Familiarity has bred only respect. Perhaps it would have been more poignant had it waited until the final but there are limits.
Since Australia were runaway winners of the recent one-day series between the sides, and left England feeling so demoralised that only failure could possibly await them in this mini-World Cup, they should be expected to prevail at Centurion tomorrow. That is not, however, the way of things for England.
Although Australia won the series 6-1, England's sole victory came in the seventh match. As Graeme Swann, England's off-spinning all rounder, said yesterday: "You're only as good as your last game and we trounced them at Chester-le-Street so I think we've got a hold over them if anything."
Swann was probably kidding but he and England are deadly serious about winning this tournament now. Ignoring the defeat against New Zealand, which if not predetermined by the toss was heavily influenced by it, England have rediscovered their touch. They must avoid puffing out their chests too far as a result of this timely revival but it was about time they started playing properly again.
"The first few games in England we were awful and we knew we were awful," said Swann. "We were talking about playing a fierce brand of cricket but it was coming across as timid as a pussy cat really. But over here something's clicked. I've no idea what it is. There has been no inspiring team talk or special magic moment or meeting with a guru.
"I think at Centurion the other night playing on a very good wicket with the confidence gained from beating that Sri Lankan team, Owais Shah and Paul Collingwood suddenly came to life and they were magnificent. It was like Twenty20 extended."
A repeat of that form might reasonably be expected to see off Australia. But with England it is impossible to be either sure or confident and Ricky Ponting, their opponents' captain, probably knows this.
"Having played as well as we did against them, and with England then coming here and playing as well as they have, it just goes to show how we well we did do over there," said the Austalian. "It should be a good game of cricket. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are hitting their straps at the time. There will be no excuses from us."
There is a chance of some big runs since the match is being played on a freshly prepared pitch, the ones used so far having virtually expired. Swann and England were rather hoping that Pakistan would be their semi-final opponents. "I'd have preferred Australia in the final because I'm an Englishman and that's what we do," he said.
England expect their wicketkeeper Matt Prior to have recovered from his illness to play and take over the gloves from Eoin Morgan. All eyes will be on him: Morgan conceded no byes in his two matches and took three catches as cleanly as a whistle. However, he has offered considerable relief to the union of wicketkeepers, whose influence has been diminished lately more than any other union, by confessing that his hands hurt and he has aches in places where he did not know there were places.
There are mild worries about Stuart Broad. Following further examination of the pain in his buttocks yesterday (his team-mates are doubtless making merry about it) he will visit hospital today.
Broad worked up a head of steam against New Zealand the other night and at times was extremely dangerous. England would not wish to go into tomorrow's match without him, but he is already struggling with a knee injury that probably needs long-term rest. But that mild concern apart it has been remarkable to witness the renewed spring in England's cricket.
"We're just a bit relieved more than anything," said Swann. "We knew we had it in us to put a couple of good games together. But you obviously start questioning yourself when you lose six in a row and, let's face it, six pretty comfortable defeats as well.
"It wasn't so much a surprise, just a relief that we actually did it. The key is to try and find out why we're playing so well at the moment and when we go back to England or wherever we go in the world just to carry on that brand of cricket because it's very exciting to play in rather than the stuff we started playing against Australia."
No one here can explain the transformation. Cricketers of the world have been stunned by England. Even when going down to New Zealand they came back into the match with some excellent fast bowling. Swann had one plausible explanation.
"There was a change of team and change of personnel we were playing against. A change is almost as good as rest and I think that was definitely the case. Seeing a guy running up in blue rather than yellow, that made a bit of a difference."
But tomorrow the men in yellow will be back. Will the new England still be around?
Going all the way? The semi-finalists
Arguably the most mercurial side left in the competition. It has become impossible to tell which team will turn up on the day, the accomplished attacking force, or the inept, mindless wimps. There must remain a huge question mark against their batting but they genuinely seem to have rediscovered purpose and self-belief. Hard to tip, however, and if their form here suggests that they are capable of beating anybody on their day, they probably won't.
See above. Arguably the most mercurial side left in the competition. Their performance depends on so many factors but mostly, it feels, what side of the bed they got up on. Multi-talented in every department but can be careless and seemingly uncaring. Slight brittleness at the top of the order might undermine them but is compensated for by a spectacular middle order. As a bowling unit containing pace and clever spin they can be formidable.
By now, they are as familiar at home as the England team, and despite a long time on the road they clearly mean business. There is a suspicion, however, that their batting, minus the injured Michael Clarke, has become too reliant on their estimable captain, Ricky Ponting. If he fails, as sometime he must, they could be in trouble. They simply do not seem as powerful as once they were, but keep defying the sceptics.
Perpetual dark horses, perpetual semi-finalists who never seem to progress further. Greater than the sum of their parts, their chances of being in Monday's final may hinge almost solely on the toss at the Wanderers where spicy pitches have made it imperative to bowl first. In Daniel Vettori they have an experienced, smart campaigner as captain but their injury-hit batting looks too fragile to take them all the way.
Stephen BrenkleyReuse content