England v Sri Lanka, Champions Trophy, Group A, The Oval June 13, 2013

A win born of belief

Sri Lanka know that in tournament cricket gut feel plays a key role. It worked for them against England.

Everywhere Sri Lanka go now, their captains are asked the same question. "Those three big names in your top four, all over 35 - aren't they getting past it now?" Four months into his leadership, Angelo Mathews already trots out clichés about class being permanent. Perhaps after the old hands set the night alight at the Oval, those doubts will abate for a time. What Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan have secured for Sri Lanka is not just two points on the table, but the mighty tide that has turned for them at world events. This time, though, there is little doubt their run began in the loss to New Zealand.

Somewhere during that searing Malinga spell in Cardiff, there was a spark, and Sri Lanka ignited. There is no other way to explain how a batting unit that succumbed for 138 on a decent pitch can scale a mountain so emphatically against the hosts a few days later. Having gone so deep, so many times, Sri Lanka understand tournament cricket. They know a clean sheet of wins or a trunk-full of form for this key man or that one do not mean so much as the feeling in their gut, and they have latched on to belief and wrestled it into their cricket.

In the last World Twenty20, Lahiru Thirimanne's scoop off Tim Southee to tie the first Super Eights match set the dressing room ablaze. Five years before that, Malinga's four in four was their World Cup elixir. They rarely appear likely victors coming in, but when the gears begin to turn, the group uncovers a spirit that eludes them outside of major competition, and the unlikely gems begin to cluster together. Nuwan Kulasekara is popular far beyond his talent at home, and having walloped his first fifty in a Sri Lanka win, a nation will swoon when they awake to the scorecard. A cleverer pinch-hitting innings is difficult to recall.

"If Kulasekara's promotion didn't work, I think the team would have been torn to shreds," Sangakkara said. "Angelo would have taken a lot of stick and criticism saying what was he doing and what were the coaches thinking. But when it does work it's fantastic. Decisions like that can go both ways. I thought it was really strong of Angelo and the coaching staff to have taken that position. It was easy for [Kulasekara] to come and try and hit every ball, but he batted sensibly through Powerplay and then accelerated right after."

It might have been easy to reason that a blazing start was the only route to success against one of the best attacks in the competition, but Sri Lanka's experienced batsmen banked on belief over desperation throughout their chase, rarely giving in to daring. The early overs were defined by care, at least after Kusal Perera had perished. Sangakkara and Dilshan exploited the poor balls on a true pitch, but gave respect when the bowling demanded it. James Anderson's first five overs went for 15 and they had only made 48 by the end of the mandatory Powerplay. Sri Lanka bat deeper now than they have for much of their ODI history and today they trusted the hitters in the middle would provide a late surge.

Jayawardene's innings was wrought from trust as well, but in himself. In the 2011 World Cup he spoke of the belief his semi-final hundred four years earlier had bestowed - that he was a big-game, high-pressure performer. He might not have pleasant memories about the outcome of that final, but his innings in it was perhaps the best in the tournament. At the Oval, he defied a bouncy pitch and a sharp attack with the reverse-sweeps and swivel-pulls that are the foundation of his limited-overs batting, but are not always an advisable path to prosperity in English conditions. His innings proved a busy link between Sri Lanka's base and their final flourish.

Sangakkara was unwilling to label this one his best ODI knock, but for a man who does not always play his big innings in Sri Lanka wins, his second-highest one-day score must rank among the sweetest. Under pressure from the first ball, he undid England with nerveless, chanceless calculation. Jayawardene breathes cricket, but Sangakkara thinks it better than most who have played the game. At times he scored at a manic rate, and occasionally he played uncharacteristic strokes, yet nothing in his innings seemed rushed or improvised. A meticulous man of method, and now the first Sri Lankan batsman who might finish his ODI career with an average over 40, he eased the top order's burden early on, and engineered a shift in the tone of the match.

"It was really important for us to take momentum going back into the dressing room, but I think Bopara really managed to put some extra pressure on us by scoring 28 of the last over," Sangakkara said. "What would have been 270 suddenly became 293, and that's a big margin. But it's a do‑or‑die situation, so everyone was probably pretty pumped up to try and go and win the game.

"I think Angie brought us together just before we walked off the field and said, 'You know, it's do or die. Someone step up or everyone step up and try and win the game.' Whether through luck or ability, whatever, we managed to get through."

If Sri Lanka win their final group match against Australia on Monday, they will progress to the semi-final regardless of outcome of the other game. Sri Lanka have built a win out of belief at the Oval, and an embattled Australia have some way to go if they are to deny them another one.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Tharindu on June 17, 2013, 2:25 GMT

    I think Sangas fair play of leaving the crease as soon as he got an edge is a disadvantage for SL as other teams not going to go for doubtful review when sanga bats. But still Cricket is there for gentlemen. Not for Indians LOL

  • Harsha on June 14, 2013, 14:39 GMT

    In all fairness to Sunny Gavaskar, I have seen on many a times he genuinely wants Sri Lanka to win, the night watchman comment was one such occasion he showed frustration in What he thought as a tactical blunder. But we Sri lankans probably know better about Kula's abilities

  • Kepili on June 14, 2013, 13:49 GMT

    This tournament started for SL, greeted with a Reversed National Anthem.... then the first game against NZ, with a Reversed Result.... denying them the (obviously earned) points! A dipping Yorker... hitting on the naked boot without even a visible shadow of a blade.... right-in-front... inches away from the middle stump ... :)) Can anyone please tell me... if there is a much more clearer LBW decision available for an umpire with a pair of functional eyes ..??? Andrew I completely agree with you... "when the gears begin to turn, the group uncovers a spirit that eludes them outside of major competition, and the unlikely gems begin to cluster together" Isn't this the exact story behind 1996 world-cup success, just after unjust fell upon them in Down Under ?

  • Chatty on June 14, 2013, 11:01 GMT

    "Sri Lanka know that in tournament cricket gut feel plays a key role. It worked for them against England." Andrew, I don't think that SL's performance in tournaments is due to mental attitude. It is because during big tournaments, the pitches are not fixed like in bi-lateral series. Being a small country, SLC does not have the power to influence pitches during bilateral away series. But during tournaments, everyone has the same conditions and then, the really talented sides like SL come on top more often than not. But this tournament is touch and go. SL should be in the semis already. They WON against NZ the other day. The incompetence of the umpire took it away. Now SL would have had to win 3 out of 3 to be in the semis!

  • Neutral on June 14, 2013, 10:37 GMT

    Kulasekara's 58 was the best promoted pinch hitting I've ever seen in a major tournament. Cynical sunny Gavaskar jumped the gun and said he is just like a night watchman, he should have waited for another 20 minutes. Why do we need such negative commentators.... may be it comes from his old time negative approach to the one day games.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 10:33 GMT

    What a fantastic win engineered by Sanga and ably supported by all the other batsmen who got a chance to bat. Being a Pakistani, Sri Lanka is my second favourite team in the tournament. Sanga was all class...such kind of innings are rearly witnessed.....I really hope Sri Lanka wins this tournament.

  • kanishka on June 14, 2013, 8:53 GMT

    A great win for Lions! Yes definitely the belief wins them the match.A smart move to promote kulasekera up in the order.Sometimes these things work and sometimes go against you.That's the nature of cricket.You have to take that risk.It worked for us today.Go Lions!

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 8:30 GMT

    The main reason why ENG lost was to me is fact that they had won the game even before the game started, The news articles appeared in papers and mentality of the players all suggested this would be a walk in park with the current form of SL. They didn't expect SL to fight so they took it easy, Some people were talking about resting trott on Sunday (this was just after 10 over's into SL innings). And if SL feel the same way about AUS then they are in for surprise too, don't ever ever underestimate your opponents.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2013, 7:06 GMT

    can we talk about missed catches and easy singles? because whats what i see the difference between sl and new Zealand other day .i think NZ and SL will be semi's if rain not coz problems