In his 20th innings as opener Jos Buttler hit his ninth half-century as England eased to victory over an emphatically outplayed Sri Lanka, whose sub-par display was summed up by the game’s final moment. With three overs remaining and just one run required to confirm victory Buttler hit an uncharacteristically wild shot and edged to the tourists’ captain and wicketkeeper, Kusal Perera. Buttler set off towards the dressing-rooms assuming the worst, but the ball flicked off the webbing of Perera’s right glove and England’s batsman just slightly amended his path and walked to the other end.
In hindsight Sri Lanka may reflect that it was not only by regularly dumping the ball straight at their opponents’ best fielder that they played into England’s hands here. For a start they won the toss and chose to bat, which given that it is nearly five years since England last did the same (against Pakistan at Old Trafford in September 2016; they lost by nine wickets) is unlikely to have disappointed anyone in England’s dressing-room.
Neither would what followed, with the tourists struggling to adapt to the variable pace of the pitch and England’s rotating cast of bowlers. They also proved worryingly fond of hitting the ball straight into the velcro hands of Chris Jordan, of all the players in England’s, or probably any other, side surely the least likely to drop it.
The result was that Jason Roy and Jos Buttler came out with a low score to chase, and few opening partnerships can be more brutal in that situation. By the end of the powerplay Sri Lanka were 29-2; England were 61 without loss, and after just six overs had already hit more fours than their opponents did in their entire innings.
It was notable in the opening overs of the game that the ball rarely pinged off a Sri Lankan bat with the satisfying sound that characterises a perfectly-timed shot. It took them 17 balls and a complete misfield from Sam Curran at midwicket to hit a boundary, and there was only one in 58 balls between the middle of the fifth over and the end of the 14th. The same was never true of England, as Buttler proved by caressing the fourth ball of their innings through the covers. From there England, much like that ball, sped inexorably into the distance.
Only Dasun Shanaka, who brought some desperately-needed impetus to the innings towards the end, showed any real fluency with the bat for Sri Lanka, scoring 50% of his team’s 10 boundaries and two of their three sixes. He struggled early in his innings, particularly against the express pace of Mark Wood, but made up for it at the end, scoring 24 of his side’s 25 runs off the last two overs, when neither of England’s death bowlers, Jordan and Curran, excelled. He eventually completed his half-century off the penultimate ball of the innings, before getting out off the last.
Perera, his captain, scored precisely 20 fewer; in three matches against England before this he had a high score of 13 and an average of 8.66. His 30 here will help to improve those figures, but as the fifth batsman out with the score on 79 his departure, thrashing high to – inevitably – Jordan at long-off, left his team in a desperate position.
Friday will be the 10th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s most recent T20 victory in the UK, and though the three matches they have now played and lost here since then are a small sample the scores have not been close. When Sri Lanka won the T20 World Cup in 2014 it was their third final appearance out of four tournaments, but they have slipped to eighth in the rankings and went into this game having lost nine of their last 10 completed games. Less than four months from the scheduled start of this year’s World Cup the teams seem at very different stages of development.
Not that England’s is exactly settled. On a night when both Joe Root (out for one) and Ben Stokes (11) were playing domestic T20 cricket in the Vitality Blast the team for this game notably included, for the first time in six years, Chris Woakes, who bowled decently and was not required to bat, and Liam Livingstone, who contributed a couple of useful overs and the wicket of Kusal Mendis, who instantly reviewed a straightforward lbw decision but was on his way back to the dressing room and probably feeling a little embarrassed after one look at a replay.
It was not the only moment in this game that made painful viewing for Sri Lanka, but with the second game scheduled for Thursday they at least don’t have to wait long to try and redeem themselves.