It took skill, courage and a lot of chutzpah which is what T20 demands, but England won a thriller against Sri Lanka and guaranteed a semi-final spot. Oh but it was close.
Having been put in to bat on a reasonable pitch in Delhi the top order made such a hash of the opening overs it looked like they would struggle to muster 140. Sri Lanka were shrewd in bowling spin in the opening six-over powerplay, but England’s batsmen displayed a naivety that was shocking. They stuttered with the occasional boundary, Jason Roy providing impetus with the ever-excellent Joe Root but never did they break free from Sri Lanka.
That was partly Sri Lanka’s plan. T20 cricket has evolved so much though that everyone knew that the Sri Lankan team had picked four bowlers. England certainly did with two former coaches of Sri Lanka in the dressing room.
The key for England was to hang in against the excellent Rangana Herath, Angelo Mathews and Jeffrey Vandersay before picking off the other eight overs. It was risky and needed a cool nerve but when the later overs started Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan capitalised. Buttler was superb and showed his full range of 360-degree hitting. Morgan showed why he is so dangerous without being on good form. He is struggling – it is clear to see – but his 22 in 16 balls was hugely helpful in building a base for England, or mostly Buttler, to launch an assault. And assault he did. The lesser bowlers were thrashed and his 66 in 37 balls was match-winning, at least it was if the bowlers performed. Could they defend 171?
They did and in some style. The boundaries were short as per the requirements of TV, but England defended the total superbly. The seamers must take the credit, all four of them. Liam Plunkett, David Willey, Chris Jordan and Ben Stokes were absolutely brilliant. If any of that quartet had been poor the game was lost.
Sri Lanka needed to attack the spin and captain Morgan was fortunate enough to only need four slow overs. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali bowled two overs each and went for a combined 63 runs. The most expensive seamer, Jordan bowled four overs for 28 and took four wickets. The statistics do not lie and if another over of spin had been required England should have lost.
Immediately, Sri Lanka struggled as danger man Tillikaratne Dilshan lifted tamely to deep square leg in the first over. Then in a flurry three more wickets fell leaving the chase in disarray at 15-4.
It should have been the end but such is the immediacy of T20 cricket that one brief partnership – five or eight overs – can swing the pendulum of advantage massively.
Mathews proved his experience in calmly accumulating until Morgan was forced to bring on his spinners. He launched a brutal assault on both knowing that it was his team’s best, indeed only, chance of an improbably victory. So successful was he that it nearly worked.
What he needed was a partner to help him to the end. There were cameos from Chamara Kapugedera and Thisara Perera but they were not enough.
So England join West Indies, New Zealand and one of India and Australia in the semi-finals.
They are as likely to be poor as brilliant, but thus far they should be commended. Only Chris Gayle’s extraordinary hitting has stymied them so far. Is it too much to believe they could progress further?