If you’ve watched them much in recent times, you’d have little reason to believe England have a blueprint for playing One-Day Internationals. Everyone knows how India and Sri Lanka approach the format and their relative strengths and weaknesses; everyone knows that New Zealand and Australia have captains with the funk to toy with the rich talents at their disposal and create flexible and unpredictable strategies. England ditched their captain and came into the tournament with a patchwork team, after four years of planning and a shifted schedule.
But there does appear to be a blueprint. And, for half of the Sunday (March 1) game it worked just fine. The second half, not so much.
The result, in terms of its margin if not in performance, speed or sheer devastation, was even worse than the mulling New Zealand handed them at this ground nine days ago, Sri Lanka beating them by nine wickets after chasing down 310. Lahiru Thirimanne and Kumar Sangakkara scored contrasting but equally effective centuries in a massive unbroken 212-run stand to take Sri Lanka over the line with 16 balls in hand.
England would be glad to leave New Zealand on Monday, although one wonders whether their recent record in Australia would provide any possible consolation.
Having won the toss and batted on a fine Wellington day – little in the way of the famous wind but plenty of sun – they did what they aim to do with the bat; they started fast and accumulated steadily in the middle overs, before accelerating in the Power Play and hitting out in the final ten. In doing so, their resourceful set of youngsters – Joe Root, James Taylor and Jos Buttler – played with invention, panache and power. At the halfway stage, a target of 310 looked some proposition for the Sri Lankans.
In the end, though, it was arguably the easiest 300-plus run chase in the history of ODI cricket. The bowling was listless and lacking variation, the fielding sloppy and the body language a tale of crossed arms, dragged feet and hipped hands. By the time Sangakkara reached a quite glorious ton – his second in succession and 23rd in ODIs – two of the central planks of English cricket in recent times, the bum-slap and the backing up, had disintegrated beyond recognition. Players walked past one another without eye contact; Sanga and Lahiru Thirimanne, who also scored a fine century having been dropped by Root on 2 and Taylor when on 99, were able to take singles by simply pushing it straight to the fielder. The two sides could have shaken hands long before they did. Both players had notched the necessary personal milestones, while Eoin Morgan didn’t offer a single attacking fielder. Even thoughts of damage limitation were long gone. Eventually, Thirimanne put them out of their misery, carting Chris Woakes over midwicket for six.
For all England’s ineptitude, these were mighty fine performances. It’s Sangakkara’s old mate Mahela Jayawardene who is known for his mastery of the chase, but he wasn’t required, because this was pitch perfect. Sangakkara had 27 off his first 31 after Thirimanne and a less fluent Tillakaratne Dilshan had them off to a flyer. Then Sangakkara exploded, feasting on English indecision to coast to his ton in 70 balls, bettering his fastest ODI mark, off 73 against Bangladesh in Melbourne three days ago.
Thirimanne’s innings was the opposite; early, he drove and pulled fluently, before stumbling between 50 and 100. Fortunately, his partner was putting on an exhibition.
How England would rue that drop, which wasn’t really Root’s fault at all, as Buttler – whose catch it should really have been – shaped to take it, only to withdraw and allow the Yorkshireman to spill. Taylor dropped Thirimanne at deep midwicket 120 runs later, but by then the finish line was merely inches away, while a chance fell just short of Moeen Ali at cover when he had 98. In between, the classy left-handers ran bravely between the wickets, taking on England’s limp fielders. Whether the batsman was in or not, has a team ever shied and failed to hit the stumps with such regularity? England’s management can talk about executing their processes and other such clichés; today they were dire.
England’s four seamers were pretty much identical – perhaps Chris Woakes is a touch quicker – and all are toothless when the ball doesn’t talk. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn were pedestrian, at best, and all spent Sri Lanka’s innings with heads bowed. The bowling was a smorgasbord of slow, wild half-trackers and slow, wide half-volleys from as homogenous an attack as you’ll see. It was little surprise that the four went wicketless; it was the efficient and tidy Moeen – of whom much too much is asked – who dismissed Dilshan, miscuing to Morgan at short midwicket.
All of which would sadden and madden England’s batsmen, who must have felt they’d done a decent job. Ian Bell looked horribly rusty in Christchurch on Monday and made a half-century, today his touch returned – and his luck, too, as he was dropped off consecutive balls early – only to fall for 49. Gary Ballance failed again and must be dropped, while Morgan remained scratchy.
Root scored the finest, and fastest, of his four ODI centuries yet, however. He scooted along at a run-a-ball, before accelerating alongside Taylor, who also showed his ability to clear the fence by lashing a six over midwicket. Root was inventive and audacious, with back-to-back reverse sweeps for four, then six, laying a platform for Buttler to let loose in the final five. He did so with some outrageous strokes, bisecting fielders, striking flat maximums and even breaking the webbing in Rangana Herath’s tough hands.
It was all in vain, though. After that Colombo quarter in 2011, England have managed just one wicket against Sri Lanka in the last two World Cups. Right now, they face a horrid looking battle to get that far this time round; three emphatic defeats leaving their net run-rate looking rather poor. There is now no margin for error. Bangladesh and Afghanistan would be licking their lips.