India cruise into semi-finals after Sehwag blitz
The ICC Champions Trophy burst into life at Premadasa on Sunday night after explosive centuries from openers Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly that whipped a near capacity crowd into a frenzy and whisked India into the semi-finals at England's expense.
During the afternoon the majority of spectators that flocked into the venue were largely neutral. There were enclaves of flag waving Indian fans, but most appeared non-committal, unsure as to whom they should support. Boundaries and wickets were cheered with equal vigour.
But Sehwag's innings, a glorious exhibition of uninhibited stroke play, provided such thrilling entertainment that they swung decisively behind Ganguly's side, dancing, chanting and clapping India towards a remarkable eight-wicket victory.
England, after a disastrous start to their innings, had set a daunting 270-run target, a total that had never been successfully chased in Premadasa's 56-game history.
But as Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh had proved at Lord's during the NatWest series final, when India had chased 325 and won, India's richly talented batting line-up is not bound by cricket history - no target is unobtainable, nothing is impossible.
England needed to start well. Under the luminous Premadasa lights Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Caddick would have expected to swing the white ball and Nasser Hussain would have been hopeful of early inroads. They were all disappointed.
Ganguly and Sehwag started circumspectly, scoring just 17 from the first five overs. However, Sehwag started his assault in the sixth over and 82 runs were plundered in the next 10 overs. Caddick conceded 46 in just six overs and the game was won before the fielding restrictions had even been lifted.
Sehwag raced past 50 in only 37 balls and on to his second hundred - his first had also been in Sri Lanka, a 69-ball effort at the Sinhalese Sports Club against New Zealand last year - from just 77 balls, hitting 17 fours and one six. Hussain tried all his bowlers but no one could restrain him.
Eventually Ian Blackwell, England's new spinning all-rounder, who had top scored earlier in the day with 82 from 68 balls, brought an end to the carnage as Sehwag pushed back a return catch, but by then the damage had been done and there was no way back for England.
His innings overshadowed the performance of his captain, who scored an unbeaten hundred. Content to sit back and admire Sehwag's pyrotechnics, Ganguly was only 18 when India moved past 100. He gathered momentum, however, especially after the dismissal of his opening partner, eventually reaching his 19th ODI hundred, from 103 balls
Having reached the landmark, punching the air in delight, he rushed the match towards an early conclusion with a flurry of boundaries, finishing unbeaten on 117 from 109 balls, having struck 12 fours and three sixes. India had won with an incredible 10.3 overs to spare.
Earlier, Hussain's side had started dreadfully after winning what had appeared a crucial toss, losing two early wickets, including that of destructive opener Marcus Trescothick, whose wicket is now prized above all others by England's opponents.
And when VVS Laxman dived low to his left to dismiss the in-form left-hander for a duck, the Indian enclaves erupted, waving their plastic chairs above their heads in celebration, aware that India had struck a potentially match-winning blow.
The early loss of Trescothick, who had scored consecutive hundreds in his previous two one-days, appeared to unsettle an English top order that has grown accustomed to Trescothick-fuelled brisk starts. The fact that India's two left-armers, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan, started impeccably only heightened their frustration.
Whilst Nick Knight struggled to find the gaps, Hussain batted like a man who would prefer to watch the semi-finals from the comfort of his Essex sitting room. Part-time wicket-keeper Rahul Dravid spilled a regulation chance before he had scored and, when he did scramble his first run, he would have been dismissed had Yuvraj Singh hit the stumps.
Desperate to get the scoreboard moving, he played two desperate slogs in Khan's third over, ungainly shots that prompted a severe tongue lashing from the bowler. However, his 11-ball ordeal was ended when he top-edged an attempted hook off a well-directed short delivery from Nehra.
Seven for two in the sixth over with their makeshift and inexperienced middle-order exposed, England looked set for a low score and possible humiliation. But Knight and Irani steadied the innings with a 73-run partnership from 82 balls.
Just when the pair had brought the match back to an even keel, leg-spinner Anil Kumble won an lbw decision from umpire Steve Bucknor, who thought long and hard before raising his finger without recourse to the television umpire. Irani had scored 37 from 47 balls and England were back in trouble on 80/3.
But Owais Shah (34) provided Knight with positive support, thriving against the spinners with nimble footwork. The pair added a further 47 from 55 balls before Knight, immediately after he had passed 50 for the 21st time in his 85-match career, threw away his wicket as he lofted part-time spinner Yuvraj Singh into the deep.
England then slipped to 153/5 when Shah was caught behind off Kumble, starting the crucial partnership of the innings between veteran Alec Stewart and Somerset newcomer Ian Blackwell, who added 104 from 91 balls.
Blackwell, playing only his second game, was particularly impressive. His cheeks flushed red through the exertion of batting in such extreme heat and humidity, he dominated the Indian attack in the latter overs, striking six fours and three sixes as England plundered 66 runs from the final six overs.