Wednesday, March 4, 2015

England v Sri Lanka, World Cup, Cake Tin, 1 March 2015


The crowd on their way to the Cake Tin on Sunday morning comprised three groups, all easily identifiable.

The Sri Lankans were clearly going to enjoy themselves, whatever happened.

The English bore the grim countenance of a congregation on its way to hear a particularly severe Calvinist minister deliver an all-day sermon about them all being sinners and having to live a lifetime of repentance.

The New Zealanders just wanted a cricketing equivalent of a lie down in a darkened room. We were still getting over our traumatic Saturday when the national blood pressure rose to a level seen before only during the last ten minutes of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. As New Zealand staggered to a one-wicket victory over Australia, the nation experienced more twists of fate and plucks on its heartstrings than can be found in the entire works of Dickens. No more excitement please, not today.

For the English it was a return to Dunkirk a week after evacuation, the memories of devastation and failure so raw. Like last week, they won the toss and batted.

Lasith Malinga opened the bowling, which is always something to see. I am no closer to working out how he bowls the ball so straight with his arm at that angle than I was when I first saw him. In a darts team he would clear the pub. Every time I watch Malinga I am reminded that had he been English he wouldn’t have made it to a county second XI. His extraordinary gift would have been coached out of him before his sixteenth birthday. There were yorkers to order, but perhaps the edge is coming off his pace; batsmen seem to get after him a bit more often these days.

England set off well and there was no collapse, though Ballance and Morgan are still out of form. Moeen Ali took a cheap hundred off the Scots earlier in the week, but does not look convincing as an opener against better opponents.

Joe Root was the hero, England’s youngest World Cup centurion, which might lead one to think that he is still a mere boy. In fact, he is the same age as Pitt the Younger was when he became prime minister, which says something about England’s undistinguished history in the competition.

Root reached his hundred at exactly a run a ball and blended the orthodox with the unorthodox well towards the end of the innings. If there is any consolation for England supporters it is that the batting can be built around Root for the next decade. Buttler did well too, despite being clonked on the swede by Malinga first ball.

309 was a good score, but not as good as England thought it was, Since the game a great deal has been written in the UK press about England’s obsession with statistics, often dodgy ones in that they take in many matches played before the limitation on boundary fielders was reduced, so loading the dice in favour of the batsmen. It’s as indicative as calculating travelling times between venues on the basis that they will be going by sailing ship.

There was certainly drift in the middle overs, but the target was reached with late-innings acceleration. The problem is that there was a target at all. It should be up to the batsmen to work out what is the best that can be achieved in the circumstances and then to strive for it. Another 30 runs mid-innings might have made all the difference.

And then perhaps it wouldn’t. As early as the fourth over, when Root at first slip dropped Thirimanne, thus cancelling out his own century in an instant, there was an inevitability about proceedings. Most of the writers blamed Buttler for the drop, as he had started going for the catch then pulled out. This supports my long-held view that it is always worth picking the best keeper, but Root should have caught it no matter what.

Paul Downton should buy Eoin Morgan a bracelet etched with the phrase “What would Brendon McCullum do?” So, when Sri Lanka lost their first wicket at 100 in the 19th over, and Kumar Sangakkara, scorer of 13,000 ODI runs, came to the crease what would McCullum have done? I’m pretty sure that I know.

He would have twigged that if Sangakkara were allowed to get established he would be mightily hard to shift and would probably take Sri Lanka most of the way to victory. Therefore, he had to stop this happening and would have put on whichever of Boult or Southee was hottest that day, stationed some close catchers and told his bowler to attack, attack, attack.

He would not have put on Joe Root, occasional purveyor of rarely turning off spin, and thought himself crafty in getting through a few overs. He would have known that this would simply be to offer valet parking to one of the greatest batsmen to walk the Earth. Sangakkara scored from every one of the first 20 balls he faced.

Moeen Ali bowled tidily enough in an unbroken ten-over spell and took Dilshan’s wicket, the only one to fall. But he batsmen cruised through his spell at five an over, just right to set up the final push.

It was as if, in homage to the late Leonard Nimoy who had died a couple of days earlier, Morgan was observing Starfleet’s temporal prime directive of not interfering in events so as to change their outcome. Sri Lanka’s victory was already written in the World Cup timeline, so he wasn’t going to do a damn thing that would change it.

This is indeed the summer of Sangakkara. A double century in the test and two at the Cake Tin. It has been such a treat. This was the quickest of his 23 ODI hundreds, though it never seemed faster than languid. It was Shakespeare knocking off a sonnet, Rembrandt a self-portrait. Of course, the need that all the England quick bowlers had to test the theory that he was susceptible to the long hop on leg stump helped him along too.

My Orange County correspondent, a keen and knowledgeable Beatles fan, made a rare visit to the cricket and I must impress on him that Sangakkara batting is the equivalent of McCartney wandering out there and strumming the highlights from Revolver or Rubber Soul.

The England fielders wore a defeated air by the time Sri Lanka were halfway to the target. Run outs appeared the only way in which England might have broken the partnership, but on one of the few occasions the stumps were hit the batsmen took an overthrow.

The end came in the 48th over, though it would have been earlier had the batsmen not lost a little timing at the end, or had Sangakkara felt like it. Thirimanne was 139 not out at the end, a fine innings, but today he was Salieri to Sangakkara’s Mozart.

The joyous cacophony of the Sri Lankan fans added to the day. It reminded me of West Indies matches in England in the seventies, particularly the Monday afternoon at the Oval in ’76 when Greenidge and Fredericks flayed England and Tony Greig grovelled before the Caribbean supporters on the western terrace.

The ludicrous structure of the competition means that England’s convincing impression of the Italian army in full retreat notwithstanding, they should still qualify for the quarter-finals, which is outrageous. Defeat by Afghanistan and elimination would be cricketing justice.

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