This Cricket World Cup desperately needed an upset. There would have been few who would have expected it to come at Headingley when England took on Sri Lanka. But that is exactly what we got, with England stumbling to a 20-run defeat. The current top-four have been in place since match 14 of this 48 game tournament. It has all been just a bit too predictable. Sri Lanka beating England is exactly the kind of result that was needed.
And this was quite the upset. Before this tournament got underway, and during it, this Sri Lankan team have seemed an unhappy bunch. With refusals to appear at press conferences, complaints about hotels and mutterings about green pitches, the world was against them. Their biggest wicket-taking threat was an aging Lasith Malinga, their best chance of runs was a horribly out-of-form Angelo Mathews.
They had four points going into this match, but half of those came from rained off matches. They were ripe for the taking and England were all set to reclaim their rightful place at the top of the World Cup table.
England have been the number one ranked team in ODI since May last year. As the home team and the top-ranked team, they were favourites with every bookmaker before the tournament started. They thrashed Pakistan 4-0 in an ODI series just a few weeks ago.
Despite all this, there was still far too much history of English failure at World Cups for anyone to feel confident of them claiming the title for the first time. There were a number of banana skins for them to slip on. But even the most pessimistic England fan would not have seen this game against this Sri Lankan side as where they would be challenged. This, against a Sri Lankan team who only just managed to scrape past Afghanistan in Cardiff earlier in this tournament. A team who have changed their captain more as often as most people change clothes.
Sri Lanka won the toss and batted first. They had lost both of their openers inside the first 14 balls of this game. They were three wickets down with just 62 runs on the board. They were in trouble. Then Angelo Mathews walked to the crease. So often his country’s savior, he had not passed 22 in his last six innings. At this World Cup, he had made 0, 0 and 9 in his three innings. He stuttered his way to 85 not out, an innings that held things together for his team as they reached 233/9. A total that didn’t feel like enough. It was though.
What became apparent as soon as England had their turn batting on this pitch was it was not an easy one. It was slow and shot making was hard. This is exactly the kind of pitch where England have struggled in the past. When the bounce is true and the pitch is quick they have battered teams from pillar to post. Here it was about patience, about taking your time, about working the ball around.
Still, England did a pretty good job at staying in the game despite fairly regular wickets. A 47 run stand between Eoin Morgan and Joe Root steadied things, a partnership between Root and Ben Stokes of 54 seemed to have taken England to within a touching distance of a win.
Then Sri Lanka’s aging warrior, Lasith Malinga, came back and claimed the wickets of Root and Jos Buttler and things looked very different.
Such is the strength of England’s batting lineup, the television's win predictor still couldn’t imagine England losing. While that is based on cold, hard numbers, for England fans it had the all too familiar feel of an England World Cup brain fade. Sri Lanka has been a team that has been at the heart of those quite a few times over the years.
The 1996 quarter-final where they chased down England’s target of 236 with nearly 10 overs to spare. The time England failed to chase down 236 themselves in 2007. In 2011 it was another quarter-final, this time Sri Lanka won by 10 wickets with 10 overs to spare. In 2015 it was a group game where England actually made over 300, Sri Lanka got there with the loss of just one wicket.
This felt very different though. England were favourites on paper and they deserved that tag. Despite this, they managed to lose a game that they should have won. Sri Lanka were superb. They read the conditions better than the hosts, they bowled the right lines, took their catches and held their nerve. Even a brilliant counter-attacking knock from Ben Stokes was not enough.
England have now lost twice in this tournament, and they are yet to face any of the other teams who currently sit in the qualifying spots. Such is the bloated nature of this tournament, this is far from a disaster. One more win against India, New Zealand or Australia should be enough for them to qualify, and this England team is capable of beating all three of those sides.
This defeat is perhaps more damaging than the one against Pakistan. That game was a batting battle where they came up short. They will back themselves to win the next one of those. But these low scoring games, where the pitch plays a part, there is a pattern. If one of those appears in the remaining group games, or in the knockout stages, then the dream will be over. Before this tournament it was easy to believe that this England side was invincible, right now their weaknesses are clear to see.
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