SL future glows brighter in victory
Sri Lanka had worked towards this match for some time. Not for the game at The Oval, in particular. Not for the foreign conditions, the opposition, nor even the tour as a whole. Sri Lanka have spent much of the last 18 months consumed in the quest to secure their future. A future beyond Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
This reality is only one match old. Things happen quickly in cricket, including the unraveling of seemingly capable sides. The team may not even discover exactly how successfully they have regenerated until the end of next year's World Cup. But in this victory over England, they have suggested there is no cause for alarm. It is not that the seniors were not missed. It is just that even without the juggernauts in the top order, Sri Lanka possessed so much substance.
Sri Lanka's batting was a whirl of kinetic energy; a raw, writhing mass, lacking the shape and finesse Jayawardene and Sangakkara provided but forceful enough to bash through to a daunting score. As batsmen came and swung hard at the ball, the self-belief that had bloomed during the team's successful run in Bangladesh was evident. Kithuruwan Vithanage bludgeoned an important innings, spoiling the impetus England had gained from two early dismissals. He threw his heart at every ball, but used his brain as well, reading the field each over, and shaping only to hit to the open spaces, perilous though many strokes were.
It is too early to suggest this batting unit will achieve the success it had with Jayawardene and Sangakkara, but lately, the signs have largely been encouraging. Lahiru Thirimanne is being groomed as a like-for-like replacement for Sangakkara at No. 3, and his studious method has begun to pay off in 2014. He lacks the power of most of his team-mates, and that vector alone would have seen him left out of many international T20 teams. But he drives himself to collect the singles and twos efficiently, and possesses enough insight into his own cricket to discern the balls he can flay.
He has many mountains to scale before he can match Sangakkara's record - perhaps he never will. But at 24, Thirimanne has a wider range of strokes and a steadier temperament than a young Sangakkara did. The older man had said as much last year. Thirimanne has now been installed as vice-captain in all three formats, and his challenge will be to maintain his rise, as he shoulders more responsibility. Sri Lanka had appointed two young leaders last year as well and, of those, Angelo Mathews grew in stature, while Dinesh Chandimal seemingly regressed.
While Thirimanne held the innings together, others would begin their knocks with ambition. Perhaps it was the assurance they had batting down to No. 8 or maybe it is because even the batsmen had caught some of their new captain's fire. A 17th over formed entirely of slower balls revealed something of Lasith Malinga's soaring self-confidence. Alex Hales, England's best batsmen of the match, anticipated the offcutter and walloped the third ball to the midwicket fence, but Malinga was unperturbed. The next one, even slower, clattered into the stumps and sent Sri Lanka to touching distance of the win.
After the World T20, Malinga had returned to Sri Lanka with his swagger embellished, even suggesting on a television show that he should have been T20 captain a year ago. Sri Lanka fans value humility more than most but they will forgive him his ego if it continues to drive him to success. If his attitude affects the collective mood, then perhaps all the better; a fearless approach has rarely let Sri Lanka down in its limited-overs past.
Sri Lanka were far from perfect on Tuesday. On other evenings, they will have fewer runs off the outside edge. Most games, the opposition will hold their catches. It might have been tougher if they had been asked to chase a good score without the newly retired men there to guide the effort but, through pure white heat, Sri Lanka earned their first win outside Asia this year.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando