Many spectators in a capacity crowd at Headingley must have been disappointed by the result of the toss; Sri Lanka won the toss and will bat. Oh dear, people thought; we want England to bat first so we can watch something like a full day. After all there is no doubt about the result, Sri Lanka have only beaten Afghanistan.
By the middle of the third over Sri Lanka’s openers, their most successful players so far, Dinuth Karunaratne and Kusal Perera, were both out, and that feeling – now more specifically targeted at “ how do we spend the afternoon?” could only have been augmented. Fast forward to the start of the 47th over of the England innings; England need 30 runs to win off 24 balls, with one wicket left. How on earth had the favourites got themselves into this position?
The simple fact is that England weren’t good enough on the day. Contemplating the match over a delicious chicken and leek pie (followed by apple and rhubarb crumble) in a splendid North Leeds hostelry it occurred to me that the game was very similar to the game I watched two days ago between New Zealand and South Africa at Edgbaston; in particular, a target which was universally assumed to be too small. At Edgbaston the target of 242 was, it transpired, too small. That was because of a classic chasing innings from Kane Williamson. England needed a Williamson. At the start of their innings they may not have realised this; the chase may have been thought to be something of a formality. But as things developed, particularly the challenge posed by Sri Lanka’s veteran opening bowler, Lasith Malinga, this was not going to be a formality. And, as it happened, England didn’t have a Williamson.
Sri Lanka had a number of heroes. The most surprising, and startling, was the 21 year-old Avishka Fernando, who had not appeared in the campaign at all but who now found himself walking out to bat at the end of the second over after Jofra Archer despatched Karunaratne.
Fernando proceeded to play an innings that was unlike any other innings played in the match, although the end of Ben Stokes’s innings was comparable. Right from the start Fernando took the attack to the bowlers; he hit six fours and two glorious sixes in his 49 off 39 balls. His dismissal, caught at third man by Adil Rashid off Mark Wood, in what looked like a catching practice exercise, came as a real shock.
It brought together Sri Lanka ‘s two best players, Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews. They started to rebuild but were restricted, especially by the spinners, Moeen Ali and Rashid.
I keep saying in this blog that Mendis is destined to be one of the world’s great players. He looked very composed making 48 off 68 balls before being brilliantly caught by Eoin Morgan at midwicket. Jeevan Mendis was out next ball, and all of a sudden Sri Lanka were back in trouble at 133 for five.
What can one say about Mathews? When the two Mendises were out he had mace 31 off 57 balls. In the tournament so far, he had made 0, 0 and 9. I saw the 9, at The Kia Oval against Australia. I said he “oozed class”. I would stand by that. Mathews is a wonderful player to watch. He is almost a great player, and he has done great things; some of them at Headingley. One was his innings in the Test match in 2014, when Sri Lanka unexpectedly beat England. Another was his innings in this match.
Mathews had a real challenge to face. He was clearly not in prime form. The top order were all gone. How was he going to orchestrate a defensible target without taking too many risks?
Mathews eventually got to 85 not-out off 115 balls. Sri Lanka’s total of 232 for nine seemed well below par.
When Jonny Bairstow was out lbw first ball to Malinga nothing really changed; after all, anyone can be out first ball. But gradually it became clear that this run chase was not as simple as everyone thought. James Vince was caught at slip off Malinga. Well, no reason to panic; Vince is always being caught at slip. But when Morgan is brilliantly caught and bowled by Isuru Udana for 21 off 35 balls things are beginning to look a bit different. England are 92 for three after 25 overs. At the equivalent point Sri Lanka were 114 for three.
Ben Stokes hit Jeevan Mendis for two sixes as the momentum seemed to shift. England needed a Williamson though, and that had surely to be Joe Root, who had been in from the start of the innings, after Bairstow’s dismissal. Having carefully accumulated 57 off 89 balls he was adjudged to have gloved one down the leg side to Perera off Malinga; this was a brilliant use of the review process by Sri Lanka. Malinga then had Buttler lbw for 10. Not a bad roll-call for the slinging maestro – Bairstow, Vince, Root, Buttler.
A critical moment followed as Moeen, having hit Dhamanjaya de Silva for six over midwicket, hit the next one to long off and was caught. This was gormless cricket by Moeen and it precipitated a collapse, with four wickets falling for sixteen runs.
Stokes was still there of course, and it was fascinating to watch him manoeuvre the strike, particularly regarding Malinga, who had two overs left at the end. When Stokes was dropped – a really difficult chance – by Kusal Mendis on the midwicket boundary, and then hit Udana for successive sixes, momentum shifted again. But he couldn’t do everything and Nirwan Pradeep – the perfect foil for Malinga, with one for 38 in ten overs, got Wood to nick one to Perera behind the stumps. 212 all out with Stokes stranded on 82.
It was a fascinating, strangely low-key match played in glorious conditions before a packed house (apart from the corporate seats in the new stand). The 35 year-old Malinga was marvellous; he knows exactly what he can do, and does it to perfection. Mathews was criticised for not getting a move on while the innings was still in progress; as it transpired he played one of the great World Cup innings. Sri Lanka could actually qualify. And England? Well, they should do but with games against Australia, India and New Zealand to come, nothing can be taken for granted.
No doubt as Morgan said at the press conference after the game, they will “come back stronger”.
Bill Ricquier at Headingley
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