England were the overwhelming favourites to continue their onslaught of teams and roll over Sri Lanka. Except, the 1996 World Cup champions had other ideas.
Sri Lanka had won just two out of 12 completed ODIs in 2019 – against Scotland and Afghanistan. That win over Afghanistan aside, you’d have to go back to January 2018 for Sri Lanka’s last victory against any of their fellow World Cup competitors in a game that wasn’t a dead-rubber (against Bangladesh, if you must know).
In the four years since the end of the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka had played 50 ODIs against Australia, England, India, New Zealand and South Africa – and won seven.
England hadn’t failed in a chase under 250 in ODIs since October 2016.
Indeed, in 23 matches batting second since the 2015 World Cup ended and ‘New England’ was born, they had failed chasing a total under 275 just that one time – and not once in 13 such cases at home.
The last time England scored less than 212 in an ODI at home (unless chasing something lesser) was the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan; in 21 completed games ever since, their average total was 315.
The ICC World Cup 2019 – billed as an elite contest, an ‘exclusive’ battle, or a 45-day long cosy-club gathering, depending on which way you looked at it – was hurtling, plummeting, screaming out loud for relevance; destined for its so-marketed round-robin stage to nose-dive into two weeks of insignifance and inconsequence.
New Zealand and India were undefeated, five and four matches into their campaigns respectively; Australia had won five out of six; England were touching the same figure, surely, ahead of their sixth fixture, against a hapless Sri Lanka, at Headingley.
Prior to Friday, Avishka Fernando had played all of six ODIs. A knock of 74 against Scotland accounted for more runs than the rest of his five outings put together, none of which had fetched a score above 29. Sri Lanka’s number three on the day was yet to get off the mark by the time both the openers returned to the hut, 14 balls into the game and with all of three runs on the board.
Prior to Friday, Angelo Mathews had amassed (a risky word to use, in this case) a grand total of 10 runs from four innings this calendar year; January 2016 was the last time he had scored more than 80 in a game of any consequence.
Prior to Friday, Lasith Malinga had only claimed two four-wicket hauls in his last 48 ODIs dating back to July 2014. You’d have to be in the same month of the same year for the last instance of ‘Slinga’ taking a four-for in the second innings of an ODI.
Prior to Friday, Dhananjaya de Silva had only managed a three-for once in 36 ODIs.
There may be other suitors to the throne, and there may certainly be others who will pip him to the top of the wicket charts this World Cup, but Jofra Archer has been lighting the stage that is England 2019 like few others. By the end of Friday, he would have more three-wicket hauls (five, if you’re counting) in six World Cup appearances than any English bowler had managed in the competition’s history.
Great win boys!!!!! Lasith Malinga You beauty 👊 well done @IamDimuth under pressure delivered. Played @Angelo69Mathews 👍
— Mahela Jayawardena (@MahelaJay) June 21, 2019
But for a 10-over period right after the scoreboard read 3/2, you wouldn’t have known it, because a 21-year-old with the experience of less than two-digit internationals was taking the bull by the horns, and to the cleaners.
Avishka Fernando had been here before – two centuries in three one-dayers, even – but that was an Under-19 series, three English summers ago.
Yet, as 3/2 in 2.2 overs became 62/2 less than an hour later, Lankans from a certain generation would have been reminded of Aravinda de Silva and a famous afternoon at Eden Gardens against India in the summer of 1996.
As Fernando walked back, Angelo Mathews trudged in, two ducks and a nine all the credit in his ledger three weeks into the tournament. He took his time, settled in, averted the impending storm in the company of Kusal Mendis, and had more than quadrupled his tally for 2019 going into the 30th over – when both the Mendises (Kusal and Jeevan) fell in the snap of an Adil Rashid wrist.
From 135/5 in 30 overs, Sri Lanka trudged along to 171/5 at the end of the 40th; Mathews was 43 of 80 balls.
There were no explosions in the back-end – only 61 runs, all told – but the former captain stayed put, and very nearly doubled his tally for the day. 85 not out off 115 balls. Lankans from this very generation would have been reminded of the Mathews that always was.
Cut to the chase.
In four ‘Js’ rests the drug that is the English batting fire of today – Jason, Jonny, Joe and Jos. The first of those propellers was missing, but replaced by another ‘J’, albeit of a lesser potency, James.
In his first burst of the early Leeds evening, Sri Lanka’s nearly-36-year-old pace spearhead rolled over the first two. In his second, Sri Lanka’s nearly-finished product smoked the latter – and so much more vital – duo.
Lasith Malinga is the Player of the Match! 10-1-43-4 #LionsRoar pic.twitter.com/QN0p0o1RCV — Sri Lanka Cricket 🇱🇰 (@OfficialSLC) June 21, 2019
Sure, Lasith Malinga has done in oppositions with four-fors before. Heck, he’s even taken four in four, at the World Cup, for crying out loud. But Lankans from a very recent generation would have been reminded of the ‘Mali’ who never left.
Within minutes, the inspiration had passed over to a man almost a decade younger, and Dhananjaya de Silva had ripped out the endless English lower-middle spine.
The wickets? Moeen Ali: he who shredded Kuldeep Yadav in the IPL less than two months ago. Chris Woakes: he who hit a century at Lord’s against the top-ranked team in the second-last Test he played. And Adil Rashid.
He’s got miles to go before reaching any place of veneration, but today’s generation of crestfallen Lankans would have been reminded of the promise of youth that has taken charge of their cricketing baton, successfully more often than not, over the last two decades.
And so here we are. 18 matches – or exactly 40% – of the round-robin remaining.
In modern-day 50-over cricket, it is the last 40% – or 20 overs – of the innings where games are said to be defined, where totals are meant to be doubled.
What’s at stake?
England – favourites for the crown, and seemingly marching towards it with their steady spate of 350-grossers – are left with three matches to play, against Australia, India and New Zealand, in that order. The last time they beat any of these three teams at the World Cup, only two members of their 15-man squad had reached the age of five. Ian Botham still played for England. Sachin Tendulkar was still 18. It was 1992.
Sri Lanka – billed as basement-dwellers for this summer, meant to be also-rans by the night of this contest we just witnessed – are also left with three matches to play, against South Africa, West Indies and India.
Brilliant stuff from Sri Lanka. What they didn't do with the bat, they more than compensated with the ball. Malinga and Co. were disciplined & troubled the batsmen. With England still needing to play Australia, New Zealand & India, the #CWC19 may throw up a few surprises.#ENGvSL pic.twitter.com/T4mHATZiz2 — Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) June 21, 2019
Given the form, and fortunes, of their first two opponents – and the upswing in their own momentum – you wouldn’t put it past them to get two more wins. That would see them end with 10 points, even if they go on to lose to India.
That would leave England – mighty, homecoming England – needing at least three points from their three challenges ahead.
And that’s not even considering the rest of the chasing pack.
Bangladesh – happy, hunting Bangladesh, they who’ve now crossed 280 more times in five innings this World Cup than they had in 32 previous tries over the last two decades – have games against fellow Asians Afghanistan, India and Pakistan to come; win two, and they will finish on nine points.
West Indies and Pakistan, do they have a real chance?
Pakistan are to play South Africa, New Zealand, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. West Indies have New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to come.
Both could win all four. Both could lose all four. They are the original crazies, remember? (What’s that ‘m’ word everyone keeps bringing up?)
Okay, so South Africa are at least out, to go with Afghanistan? Technically, they could still end with nine points, with victorious returns in each of their last three games, against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia.
And if England – may the forces forbid – were unable to end their 27-year drought against their three upcoming opponents, they would be behind the Proteas.
By the way, Australia’s last three games? England, New Zealand, South Africa. New Zealand’s last two? Australia, England.
We live in a strange world. We love a strange sport. Hello again, Cricket World Cup 2019!
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