Moeen Ali produced an abundant one-day innings to raise horizons and rouse spirits, but it will take more than a one-man masterclass, however brilliant, to turn England into fancied World Cup contenders. Moeen clocked the third fastest ODI hundred in England’s history, but ultimately it was Sri Lanka whose 25-run victory gave them first strike in the seven-match series.
To surpass Sri Lanka’s 317 for 6, England would have needed to scale unsurpassed heights. They had never chased more than 306 to achieve victory; no side had won at the Premadasa Stadium with more than 286 to its name. Moeen’s 119 from 87 balls, with his hundred coming off 72 deliveries, the third fastest for England, the latest eye-catching performance in an outstanding start to his international career, kept the faith, but when he knocked back a soft return catch to Jeevan Mendis, sixth out at 203, England subsided.
If the initial thrust was Moeen’s, the sad-faced finale, as so often, belonged to Ravi Bopara. He was last out for 65 from 62 balls, a judicious innings which ended when a mishit leg-side skier was plucked by the divingKusal Perera. This was lone, admirable and predictably unrewarded resistance. Too often his doughty efforts achieve nothing. But his presence in the squad should be a given.
After their troubled one-day tour of India – reluctantly undertaken at India’s request after the failure of the Caribbean malcontents to fulfil their obligation to complete the tour – Sri Lanka deserved something restorative on their return to home shores. They found it in the shape of a disorientated England bowling attack, which was perhaps surprised to find itself called into service after the monsoon – particularly persistent this year apparently – conveniently relented in the nick of time.
Moeen was England’s main comfort. When he surged to 50 in 25 balls, fed width, particularly from Dhammika Prasad, only Paul Collingwood had struck a faster ODI half-century for England. Briefly, his focus wandered slightly, only for him to rally with some ringing leg-side blows, five sixes, all as crisp as a winter’s bell, all against the spinners. He offered one chance, on 72, a flat chance to Jeevan Mendis at deep square leg off the fielder’s namesake Ajantha.
Compare that excitement to the labours of his opening partner, Alastair Cook. Cook’s travails have been endlessly chronicled, and to be given out lbw twice in the first over, on nought, as Angelo Mathews outdid him with fullish deliveries, only for Cook to successfully review the decisions, was quite a start. When Tillakaratne Dilshan ran another ball into Cook’s pads, by now with 10 runs to his name, he knew in his heart that another review would not only be futile but mildly embarrassing.
Thisara Perera’s hefty aggression, and excellent line, accounted for Ian Bell and Joe Root. There were no mid-innings explosions from Eoin Morgan, who poked at Ajantha Mendis to drag on, or Jos Buttler; Ben Stokes’ limitations against spin were evidenced when he was stumped against the left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, who then outwitted Chris Woakes in similar fashion.
Grouchy skies delayed the start by an hour, but the pitch was excellent considering the months of rain and England’s pace bowlers initially fell well below expectations. Harry Gurney recovered slightly in later spells, and has probably deserved a chance to pronounce himself a World Cup death bowler, but Stokes’ lack of direction brought four overs for 36 in three spells and was best forgotten.
England had also lost Steven Finn to a failed fitness test and dropped Chris Jordan after a poor performance in the sole warm-up match against Sri Lanka A had extended a run of inaccurate displays. Shorn, too, of the old firm of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, they bowled 16 wides, Gurney the chief offender. Only the complexities of “World Cup planning” could justify Cook’s decision to limit Bopara to four overs.
For Sri Lanka, inured to poor opening stands, it was quite a turn-up for Kusal Perera and Dilshan to survive into the 23rd over, assembling 120. Perera gradually muscled his way into his innings whilst Dilshan, 38 now with 17 ODI hundreds behind him, took his chance less conspicuously, milking the leg side at will.
It took a run out to bring England their first wicket, Kusal Perera’s initial reluctance to share Dilshan’s understandable enthusiasm for a second run to Joe Root at deep midwicket causing Dilshan to return to his crease and run out Perera, by then awakening to his task, in the process.
James Tredwell, unfazed by the faltering displays around him, found occasional turn. He was involved in England’s occasional near misses, failing to pull off an excellent leaping catch off Bopara at midwicket when Kusal Perera was 57 and suffering himself in mid-innings when Morgan, also at midwicket, failed to pull off what would have been a stupendous catch when Mahela Jayawardene was 7.
Kumar Sangakkara, who has abandoned his retirement plans at the behest of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, failed to bring immediate contentment in high office, managing only 2 before Moeen turned one to have him lbw; Sangakkara’s carelessly-wasted review seemed very out of character.
After Dilshan fell for 88 to a leading edge, and a return catch by Woakes, so missing out on an 18th ODI hundred that had seemed well within his grasp, a thin but noisy crowd awaited fireworks from Mathews. He did not disappoint. His 33 from 24 balls was climaxed by two successive long-on sixes off Tredwell, an attempting third picking out Stokes who held a steepler.
When England ended Jayawardene’s composed half-century two balls later, Buttler holding a leg-side catch off Tredwell, and Thisara Perera, promoted up the order, self-destructed against Woakes – a good running catch over his head by Cook at extra cover – England had reason for relief. But 94 off the last 10 overs – including 21 off the penultimate over as Jeeven Mendis made light work of Woakes – again thrust the game back in Sri Lanka’s favour.