England have earned themselves a lifeline in the ODI series against Sri Lanka – and gained some encouragement ahead of the World Cup – with a nerve-wracking five-wicket victory in Hambantota with eight balls to spare.
It was not just that England claimed a much-needed victory that sees the series balanced at 2-1 to Sri Lanka with four games to play. It was that the architects of the victory were the younger, less experienced players who showed a skill and composure that their senior colleagues have so obviously lacked.
If an explosive half-century from Moeen Ali – who with five sixes equalled his own record for the most by an England opener in an ODI innings – set the platform for the England chase, the unbroken sixth-wicket partnership of 84 in 64 balls between Joe Root andJos Buttler was almost as impressive.
This was not an entirely positive day for England, though. Their slow over-rate during the Sri Lanka innings – they took 18 minutes more than their allowance – may well result in the match referee taking action against their captain, Alastair Cook. Cook has received a warning previously and faces the prospect of a one-match ban.
Cook’s own form continues to provoke debate, too. England made the controversial decision to drop Ian Bell, the most experienced man in their squad, ahead of this game despite his record of late being somewhat better than Cook’s. Bell averages five more than his captain in ODIs this calendar year and has a strike-rate about 20 runs higher than Cook’s in the same period.
Cook was unable to take advantage of the extra opportunity. He looked in better touch in driving Mathews for a couple of sweetly-timed boundaries and late-cutting Ajantha Mendis for another. But his familiar dismissal – pushing at one angled across him – provided a reminder of his struggles and it is now 43 ODI innings and 30 months since he reached 80. There will be many concluding that Cook receiving an ICC suspension for a slow over-rate would be nothing less than a blessing to England.
England might also reflect that they should have won this game a great deal more easily. Given a blistering start from Moeen, who raced to his half-century from 29 balls (four balls slower than his innings in the first ODI) and drove one six over cover off the pace of Thisara Perera that would have pleased any batsman in any era, it seemed they need only maintain their composure to win.
But composure is a quality often lacking in a side that has lost eight of its last 10 ODIs. So, Moeen was run-out when Alex Hales failed to respond to a simple call for a single – Moeen almost ran two – before Hales then drove to mid-on, Eoin Morgan picked out the man at deep square-leg as he hooked at Mathews and Ravi Bopara was brilliantly caught by Kumar Sangakkara, who sneaked down the leg side to anticipate his sweep. It all meant that England had lost three wickets for eight runs in nine deliveries.
Buttler and Root kept their heads, though, and feasted on some wayward death bowling with Root scooping one six and straight driving another and Buttler calculating his assault brilliantly. Having taken 23 balls over his first 20, he then hit seven fours from his next 12 deliveries to take England home with more than an over to spare. Their unbroken stand was worth 84 in 10 overs.
Perhaps Sri Lanka were unfortunate. The dew clearly made it difficult for the spinners to grip the ball in the latter overs and the DL calculation – it rained heavily after two overs of their innings, resulting in the match being reduced to 35 over per side – appeared to do them few favours.
But they would also admit that their fielding was unusually shoddy. Lahiru Thirimanne dropped a simple chance at mid-wicket off Hales and both Rangana Herath and Thilina Kandamby turned singles into boundaries with misfields. Most crucially, when Root was reprieved on 40 – it appeared he had been caught at extra-cover only for replays to show that the bowler, Dhammika Prasad, had overstepped – England had the slice of luck they needed to clinch victory.
Earlier, Sri Lanka plundered 62 runs from the final five overs of their innings to set a challenging total. Given a platform by a typically fluent half-century from Kumar Sangakkara, they were given late acceleration by Thirimanne and Dhammika Prasad, who thrashed two sixes and two fours in his eight-ball stay.
Sangakkara, almost certainly playing his last international game at this ground, became only the fourth man to reach 13,000 ODI runs during the course of his innings, but when he was deceived by a slower ball it seemed Sri Lanka might struggled to set a total much in excess of 200.
They had already succumbed to 31 for3 in the early stages before Angelo Mathews and Sangakkara added 87 in 14.2 overs to put them back on track. But it Thirimanne, who reached his 50 from 39 balls, who led the late-innings charge which gave Sri Lanka a competitive total.
England’s decision to drop James Tredwell and Harry Gurney, as well as Bell, brought limited results. Chris Jordan bowled some decent balls, but proved expensive, while Ben Stokes bowled poorly and was only trusted to two overs.
Kandamby also endured a tough return to international cricket. Recalled in place of Mahela Jayawardene, who was given permission to miss the game for his daughter’s first birthday, he guided his second ball to slip and looked some way off the pace in the field.