For the fourth time in four games in England’s five-match ODI series, torrents of rain made a wholly unwelcome appearance. But, this time, not before 77 overs had been bowled and England had got themselves far enough ahead (18 runs) on Duckworth-Lewis-Stern in their pursuit of 274 to secure the match and the series.
It had felt, three games too late, like the match to finally bring the series to life, with a good crowd creating a lively atmosphere for a cagey, competitive contest. For most of the day, the weather looked happy to play ball too. But this is Sri Lanka, in rainy season and, following two days of lovely weather, what else should we really expect? And before the rain came, fans’ umbrellas had been out to shield the sun.
England might reflect that they rather got away with it here, on two counts. First, their selection – favouring pace on rather than off – looked wrong on a pitch that was tricky for batting at times and, having been put in, Sri Lanka were allowed a few more runs than England would have liked. Then, with the bat, England were the beneficiaries of a shocking misjudgement from Sri Lanka.
With the skies darkening and DLS nip and tuck in the 23rd over, Joe Root top edged a sweep off Dhananjya de Silva’s horrible knee-high full toss straight to short fine-leg. He completed the catch but the square-leg umpire’s arm was out indicating a no ball. It was not, as initially assumed, for height, but because Sri Lanka did not have the obligatory five fielders in the ring. The wicket, had it stood, would have left England’s DLS position perilously tight. Five overs later, the heavens had opened.
Root struggled for fluency – as highlighted by his inability to put away the free hit that resulted from that no-ball – but a fast start from Jason Roy and another lively innings from Eoin Morgan had England in a strong position, 18 ahead on DLS, when the covers eventually came on. That was around 3.45pm, almost exactly the same time as the players left the field in both matches in Dambulla. For the third time, the rain instantly looked terminal.
In hindsight, England might have preferred Sam Curran’s craft or Joe Denly’s spin over Olly Stone’s pace on that surface. Indeed Denly could have taken Jonny Bairstow’s spot when he twisted an ankle playing football on the eve of the game.
That went to Alex Hales, which was the correct decision in terms of England’s hierarchy, but not the most explorative option with so few games until the World Cup squad is named. Hales dropped Dasun Shanaka on 24 – he made 66 – then scored 12 off 23 himself. England learned nothing new, and Bairstow can rest easy for now, for his place is safe. Hales’ dismissal, like the drop, was just a little dopey, stumped propping forward at Akila Dananjya’s first ball.
Hales’ miss, at deep midwicket when he appeared to have no idea where the rope was, highlighted an inconsistent performance in the field. Jos Buttler missed a regulation stumping (off de Silva’s first ball) and botched a run out, but smart run outs also accounted for the two men capable of causing huge damage. Eoin Morgan and Chris Woakes cannily did for Shanaka, then an extraordinary final-over throw from Ben Stokes in the deep saw off Thisara Perera.
The bowling was a mixed bag too. The spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, were helped by the pitch, and combined three for 91 (with Moeen taking the key wickets of Niroshan Dickwella and Dinesh Chandimal) from their 20 overs. They were all bowled out by the 32nd over, though, leaving the seamers plenty to do. Tom Curran and Chris Woakes, who picked up his customary early wicket, used their variations well as the innings wore on but Stone bore some tap, not least from Shanaka, who launched him for successive sixes. Morgan stuck with his young quick, who never lost his nerve.
By the time the ODI team play their next series, in the Caribbean in February, it will be two years and nine series since they last lost a bilateral ODI of more than one match. In that time they have beaten West Indies (home and away), Ireland, South Africa, Australia (home and away), New Zealand, India and now Sri Lanka. Victory here provides a chance to experiment in Tuesday’s final match, with four players in the touring party yet to be used. The World Cup looms, and chances to impress are running out fast