The defending World Twenty20 champions scrambled to a nine-run victory after Michael Hussey's one-man show left Stuart Broad's side sweating.
England snatch victory in World Twenty20 warm-up against Australia
Stuart Broad's defending champions appeared on track to coast to a fifth successive win this year over their oldest enemy - but that was reckoning without Hussey (71), the vital missing ingredient during England's 4-0 NatWest Series trouncing of Australia on home turf two months ago.
Hussey near single-handedly kept his team's hopes alive, and England sweating, after wrecking young spinner Danny Briggs' figures with three consecutive sixes over mid-wicket.
With the first, the left-hander brought up his 45-ball fifty, and he added another boundary too for good measure in the slow left-armer's final over.
But Broad himself returned to have Hussey lbw, and from there Australia ran out of steam to finish short of 172 for six.
Alex Hales (52) had underpinned that competitive total, after England were put in on a steamy morning and a stodgy pitch, the tall opener continuing to fare well in his role as the controversially absent Kevin Pietersen's replacement.
England were playing their first practice fixture of a tournament which will begin in earnest for them against minnows Afghanistan at the nearby Premadasa Stadium on Friday.
Their total twice looked vulnerable here, first in a second-wicket stand of 74 between Hussey and Shane Watson and then when Australia's most accomplished batsman was gathering momentum alongside Glenn Maxwell.
Steven Finn thought he had Watson with the first ball of Australia's reply, but his caught-behind hopes came to nought.
Instead, England got David Warner for a duck when he speared a catch to point off Finn.
Watson, however, stayed to hit Finn, Tim Bresnan and Broad for a six each - the England captain suffering particularly in his opening over, which contained three wides and cost 14 runs.
Graeme Swann provided the breakthrough England needed when he had Watson bowled sweeping, and Briggs had Cameron White stumped when he advanced but got nowhere near the pitch.
England looked in big trouble as Hussey suddenly raced through the gears, but their worries were soon over once Broad got the big wicket and the rest could not sustain the challenge. Hales might earlier have been run out on three, had Warner managed a direct hit from point; he also offered a tough half-chance to diving wicketkeeper Matthew Wade on 21 off Dan Christian, and escaped a feasible stumping off veteran spinner Brad Hogg on 34.
But he was responsible for England's early momentum, once he found the boundary in the fifth over - the first of three fours in four balls off Clint McKay.
Hales' opening partner Craig Kieswetter mistimed an attempted big hit to deep mid-off. But Australia contributed to England's total with a succession of early wides - one of which, from Mitchell Starc, swung past the wicketkeeper and sped to the boundary.
Hales and Luke Wright shared a second-wicket stand of 88.
Even though George Bailey tried to put the squeeze on by chopping and changing his bowlers, Wright upped the ante with two reverse-hit fours and England's first six over mid-wicket off Hogg to bring up the hundred - only to fall to the last ball of the same over when he picked out deep square leg.
Hales completed his half-century in 36 balls, but clipped Hogg to mid-wicket to go soon afterwards.
With Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow's expert hitting and placement still to come, England nonetheless had a total which turned out to be too much - despite Hussey - for the team they also beat to win their World Twenty20 title in a Barbados final two years ago.
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