By Gary Naylor
Even without Sangakkara and Jayawardena in its ranks, ICC World T20 champion eases home despite Hales’s heroics
Kithuruwan Vithanage’s five sixes against Sussex on Sunday were not enough to retain the opener’s slot, an indication of the world champions’ strength in depth. No matter, he was soon smashing it again after Tillakaratne Dilshan’s frenetic innings was halted by Harry Gurney’s first international wicket.
Kusal Perera, the other opener, went cheaply too, but Sri Lanka believes that power play overs are for powerfully played shots, so they kept swinging, hitting Eoin Morgan’s well-placed fielders more often than not. But when leading edges fly for six, runs will come.
England’s inexperienced bowlers kept their heads well in the first six overs restricting Sri Lanka to 43 for 2. Gurney and Chris Jordan, with a mere eight T20Is between them, yielded just 23 runs from their four power play overs, each picking up a wicket – encouraging signs as England seek to rebuild after the disastrous winter.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's new pair at Nos. 3 and 4 looked wholly undaunted by the prospect of replacing the irreplaceable, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Both fared well. Vithanage steered Chris Woakes to deep point after an aggressive 38 off 26 balls and Lahiru Thirimanne showed the benefit of nearly 100 international appearances, maintaining a strike rate of well over 100 without the recklessness displayed by his teammates. That was best illustrated by Dinesh Chandimal, who had hit a six off the first ball of the eleventh over but perished trying to repeat the shot off the third.
Woakes soon worked out that the best option for batsmen setting themselves to get under the ball and slog was the yorker, showing admirable accuracy in aiming for the toes. Nobody thinks it’s easy to get the ball in the blockhole consistently, but it can be practised in the endless net sessions today’s contracted cricketers are obliged to play.
Though never really shackled, Sri Lanka clearly felt that it had the batting to get up about the 170 mark, so it kept attacking. Angelo Mathews fell victim to that strategy, repeating Dinesh Chandimal’s sucker-punch dismissal, caught in the 15th over attempting a second successive straight six off James Tredwell.
Thirimanne had impressed with a well-constructed 40 off 32 balls, playing what passes for an anchor role in T20 cricket, but the impetus was provided by Thisara Perera, who slashed and smote his way to an ugly, but highly effective, 49 off 20, before Gurney smartly ran him out off the last ball of the innings. Sri Lanka's 183 for 7 was probably over par, but England would have taken heart from the five overs that went for four runs or fewer.
England started its innings knowing that 184 was a stiff ask, but exactly the kind of score that the best T20 sides chase down more often than not. New cap, but resplendent under his streamlined helmet, Michael Carberry had his favourite square cut surprisingly fed in Nuwan Kulasekara’s first over, but it was not a mistake the wily Mathews made, inducing a slog across the line that was caught off a leading edge at third man.
Ian Bell’s return to T20Is after a three-year absence brought a crazy mix of classical stroke play and horrible reverse paddles that concluded with a hideous slog off Lasith Malinga. Alex Hales’s beautiful cover drive concluded the power play with England six runs ahead of Sri Lanka's effort for the same two wickets down. Yet again, the question for England’s batsmen was whether they had the weight of stroke and self-belief to go at about ten an over for a prolonged period.
Joe Root did not last, strangled down the leg side off Suranga Lakmal as Chandimal showed quick feet to make the catch look easy. By the time Morgan arrived at the crease, England had scored just 15 from the first three post-power play overs, compared to Sri Lanka's 33.
Lakmal’s totally committed run and jump forward at long-off to catch a low Morgan drive illustrated the self-belief that coursed through the visitors’ veins. One England player who always projects that kind of confidence is Buttler, the wicketkeeper-batsman, who showed some of MS Dhoni’s prowess at hitting the fullest of balls to the boundary in a quickfire 26.
Meanwhile, Hales progressed to another T20I fifty off 33 balls, the strike eluding him rather more often than he would have liked. But he swung once too often at Malinga, who was at the stumps as usual, to be dismissed for a fine 66 off 41 balls.
England needed a unlikely 13 an over with Nos. 7 and 8 at the crease, but the No. 7 was Bopara, a man who infuriates and delights in roughly equal measure, so there was still a sliver of hope for the majority of a good-natured, vocal crowd. The predictably straight and full Malinga soon cleaned up Jordan, so Bopara needed 24 off the last over, bowled by Lakmal. Despite an extraordinarily unorthodox stance and big hits, that was too much.
Sri Lanka’s most experienced bowlers, Malinga and Mathews, combined for figures of 6-0-35-4 and there was never much chance of England scoring at nearly 11 per over off the other bowlers.