Four England cricketers took time off from their exciting routine of match-hotel-training-match-hotel to drive three hours out of New Delhi to spend a day being touched by magic at the Taj Mahal. Cricket’s gods smiled on Jos Buttler, David Willey, Joe Root and Liam Plunkett, each of whom played a vital role in England’s crunch game against Sri Lanka, helping them clinch a thrilling 10-run win over Sri Lanka, and a spot in the semifinals of the ICC World Twenty20 2016. England’s win showed both South Africa and Sri Lanka the door.
To score 171 after being 99 for 3 in 15 overs, to have the opposition reeling at 15 for 4 and yet allow them to within 10 runs of the target, takes some doing. England would know they came close to having played good cricket, but not pushing themselves hard enough to play great cricket, letting a game that was theirs to do down to the wire at Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi on Saturday (March 26).
There’s little dispute that Angelo Mathews in full cry is an elemental, almost irresistible, batsman, and his unbeaten 73 from 54 was a case in point, but the fact is that England left themselves vulnerable, and it was the smallest of margins – a mishit here, a lack of clean connection there – that was the difference between victory and defeat.
The nerve-shredding tension of the thriller came in the chase, Mathews standing tall and lonely in defeat, but the genesis of a great game of cricket was in how England played the first half of their innings.
Even accounting for the early loss of Alex Hales, and the canny left-arm spin of the evergreen Rangana Herath, England should have had more than 65 on the board from their first ten overs, having lost only one wicket.
They only got away with the retro style of limited-overs cricket – wickets in hand and going big at the death – thanks to the brilliance of Buttler. Neither the fall of Root (23) off the first ball of the 11th over, clocking a long hop from Jeffrey Vandersay to the midwicket fielder on the ropes, nor the departure of a cussing, head-shaking and eventually bat-flinging Jason Roy (42), lbw to Vandersay, set England back.
Eoin Morgan, not in the best form of his life, took the opportunity to make the most of having the best seat in the house, and barely hit a shot in anger as Buttler bossed the bowling.
Dushmantha Chameera, who was quick when he put the effort in and clever when he sent down cutters, was crashed for three fours in a 14-run 17th over. Dasun Shanaka conceded one more off the next over, a Buttler pile-drive over long-on bringing the crowd to life. In the 19th over, Buttler reprised the stroke, only hitting Chameera even further, to make it another 15-run over. When the final ball of the innings was bowled, Buttler was unbeaten on 66 from only 37 balls, and had lifted England, literally and figuratively, to a score that would take some chasing. Without Buttler, it was unlikely England would have made 72 from the last five overs, and on the day, even that was almost not enough.
The man Sri Lanka had to look to, to have any chance of leaving the field in smiles, was Tillakaratne Dilshan, but he lasted only two balls, pulling David Willey straight to square-leg. Dinesh Chandimal wafted lazily outside off to nick one, Malinda Siriwardana chipped to cover and Lahiru Thirimanne was expertly run out by a diving Ben Stokes to leave Sri Lanka reeling at 15 for 4.
Then came the slow climb out of the abyss, ball by ball and run by run, as Mathews and Chamara Kapugedara showed England an alternate way to play Twenty20 cricket. Despite knowing that preserving the partnership was absolutely critical, neither batsman was caught napping when the scoring opportunity presented itself. Even when Kapugedara (30) fell, hope floated, as Thisara Perera added his six-hitting heft to the staccato volley of huge hits that Mathews was raining on England.
Every time the pressure of the scoreboard weighed down, Mathews pushed back, choosing perfectly normal cricketing shots, but rendering the field placements irrelevant by hitting the ball several rows deep into the stands in the arc from midwicket to long-off.
When Chris Jordan began the penultimate over, 22 were needed and Shanaka squeezed the second ball to the third-man fence, tilting the balance Sri Lanka’s way. A booming inside-out drive seemed destined for the cover fence, but superman Root got in the way, leaping into the air to intercept the ball. Jordan then put a lid on it, leaving Mathews on strike with 15 needed off the final over.
Two hard-run braces left Mathews and Sri Lanka needing 11 from the final two balls. Try as he might, he could not make the clean connection. England had held their nerve when it mattered the most.