Sangakkara masterclass trumps Buttler blitz

Sri Lanka levelled the series in a Lord’s thriller in which two batsmen stood head and shoulders above their team-mates. Sri Lanka needed a magnificent century from Kumar Sangakkara, who got support from a scratchy Tillakaratne Dilshan to set a highly competitive target of 301. That looked plenty enough for the win until Jos Buttler joined Ravi Bopara in the 29th over and proceeded to hit almost every ball out of the middle, posting an extraordinary century of his own. But even that wasn’t quite enough to secure a most unexpected of wins.

The winning margin of seven runs, with the result still in the balance in the 100th over of the day, was the first close result of the four One-Day Internationals, but the crowd will remember two great innings long after they have forgotten the result.

There was no sign of the thrills to come as Kusal Perera, in for his first match since the Twenty20 International 11 days ago, played a short but sweet T20-style knock to get Sri Lanka up and running after the Old Trafford horror show. If somewhat premeditated, it looked a smart move from Sri Lanka, as it allowed Dilshan to ease himself into the match against some disciplined bowling from Jimmy Anderson and Harry Gurney.

Perera’s fun didn’t last long, as he swiped once too often at Gurney and edged to Chris Jordan, who went full length to his left to hang on to a sensational catch. That brought Sangakkara to the crease at 26 for 1 for the first of the match’s two old firm partnerships that have so often defined Sri Lanka’s innings. Gurney, looking more and more like Dirk Nannes, bounced him early, but Sangakkara, back at the scene of his extraordinary Cowdrey Lecture of 2011, would need more than that to put him off his stride.

It was the ninth over before the Dilscoop was unveiled, two successive fours his reward, though the attempt at the hat-trick failed. That little burst of scoring brought the total up to 45 for 1 at the end of the Power Play, England’s discipline reining in Sri Lanka’s aggression. It was the 18th over before the shackles were broken, with consecutive fours from Sangakkara off Joe Root, lifting his scoring rate from 50 to 80 in three blows.

The Sri Lanka hundred was raised in the 20th over, with Dilshan and Sangakkara both set after working hard on a pitch that was sticky enough to make timing shots a challenge. Sangakkara was first to his fifty, off just 53 balls, Dilshan raised his half-century off 72 balls. At the halfway mark, Sri Lanka had 134 of 1 and were asking questions of England, who needed a wicket to dent the batting foundation being readied for the late charge.

Sangakkara raised his century in the 39th over off 95 balls, an innings steeped in the 350 previous occasions on which he has taken guard in ODIs. There were none of Dilshan’s hijinks, just a commitment to play through the early stages and then hit the bad (indeed, sometimes the average) ball for four and block the good ones for singles or dots.

Sangakkara fell in pursuit of quick runs incongruously and inelegantly, stumped off James Tredwell as he sprawled in his attempt to recover his ground. Dilshan, never fluent, was eventually undone by his signature stroke, his stumps splayed by Anderson as he tried to get the ball over the ‘keeper’s head for a fourth time. The two old stagers had added 172 at just under a run a ball in contrasting style, with Dilshan’s contribution of 65 testimony to his ability to grind out runs even if well short of his best form.

When the 200 was raised in the 37th over with just the openers’ wickets in the debit column, Sri Lanka was looking at 300, probably just a little over par on a pitch that only Sangakkara had mastered in terms of timing. Mahela Jayawardene was no help towards that objective, trying to hit himself out of a bad trot, but only succeeding in looping a catch to Anderson, just 7 off 14 balls his contribution.

Angelo Mathews was the most effective batsman when the slog was on, and with only the centurion at ease at the crease, Sri Lanka had done very well to get up to a round 300 at the closure. England, not for the first time in this series, had bowled well, with Anderson and Gurney looking very good with the new ball, the effort only undermined by an inexplicably profligate 12 wides, one of which ran away for four more. If England had learned anything in its almost four hours in the field (a ridiculous length of time to deliver 50 overs), it was that there would be no chances to sit in for a quiet spell of five overs for 15 runs if this target was to be reached. The match was in the balance as its second innings began.

Lasith Malinga, his mojo very much back, had other thoughts, steaming in, bowling full and shaping it away and in to the batsmen just enough to see off openers Alastair Cook (on review) and Ian Bell via the edge within his first eight balls. That left Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance and Joe Root to rebuild the innings, negating any opportunity to hit out in the Power Play. The tenth over saw England’s reply 11 runs short of Sri Lanka at the same stage, with one fewer wicket in hand.
No boundary was scored between the third ball of the ninth over and, incredibly, the second of the 31st, in part due to Sri Lanka’s bowling, but mainly due to England’s lack of ambition and feeble weight of stroke in the top four. That may be a recipe to chase 240, but it meant that an awful lot of faith was being placed in Eoin Morgan, Ravi Bopara and Jos Buttler.

Ballance, trying to hit a much needed boundary, edged a reverse sweep to Sangakkara behind the stumps to bring Morgan to the crease with the asking rate almost eight from 26 overs – not quite out of sight, but distantly on the horizon. That feeling was underlined by the halfway stats which showed England’s 101 for 3 in a poor light compared to Sri Lanka’s halfway mark of 134 for 1. The 43-run deficit on the Duckworth-Lewis target looked about right.

Sure enough, the asking rate preyed on England’s minds with Root and Morgan falling to desperate strokes as the batsmen seemed incapable of scoring at more than four runs per over. Buttler’s sixth ball brought ironic cheers, as the first boundary for well over an hour came from a firmly hit reverse sweep, but still accumulation appeared to be all the batsmen were interested in – or all they were capable of – until Buttler, just as the game appeared gone for good, applied a weight of stroke so far unseen in the innings and injected some much needed impetus to the reply. It felt like England moved from the 20th century into the 21st century whenever the explosive wicketkeeper was on strike.

Buttler went to his fifty off 34 balls with a six off Nuwan Kulasakera, a blow that brought the ask down to 120 off 13 overs with a sliver of belief weaving round the ground. That sliver grew into something approaching a ribbon as Buttler – going like a train – and Bopara wrapped up the Power Play with 50 runs from the five overs and the target down to 92 off the last 10 overs – the game was very much on.

The turnaround in batting attitude and, worryingly for England, perhaps batting skills, was illustrated best by the fact that the 28 completed overs before Buttler and Bopara joined forces contained just one that went for seven runs: of the 15 complete overs that comprised their partnership, 10 went for seven runs or more. That reversal owed little to the Lankan bowling or fielding, which remained good under pressure – it had everything to do with the batsmen’s desire (and ability) to hit boundaries.

Bopara top edged a sweep to Thiramanne at short fine leg to be out for 51 off 47 balls, not as quick as he would have liked, but a perfect knock with Buttler going so well at the other end. That made for a target of 56 off five overs, with Chris Jordan – no mug – in the middle with Buttler, now right in the zone. Kulasekara was welcomed back to the attack with two astonishing sixes smashed over extra cover – and England had gone from 150 to 250 off 71 deliveries.

Kulasekara’s over went for 20 and the match was tilting England’s way for the first time all day.

Buttler’s hundred came off 61 balls with nine fours and four sixes, the Lancashire man playing a completely different game to his team-mates – indeed, a completely different game to any other Englishman had ever played (though not quite any other England batsman). He perished, run out for 121 off 74 balls, many of which were hit as cleanly as any hit by any batsman in history, his personal tally showing 15 of England’s 20 boundaries – this on a pitch which had troubled all but Sangakkara.

There was to be no fairytale for Buttler as England fell seven runs short of its target, despite scoring more runs off the bat, England’s wide count costing them dearly. The teams go to Edgbaston for the deciding rubber all square at 2-2: England fans go home with a new hero to thrill them as no batsman has since, well, since the man whose name everyone is trying not to mention. 50 overs cricket doesn’t get much better than this.

(Courtesy: International Cricket Council)

England v Sri Lanka: 4th ODI at Lords View Full