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

Lack of swing exposes England attack

With the white ball offering little conventional swing and, on this surface, little reverse swing either, England lacked the weapons to stem the tide of Sri Lankan runs

Well, that makes things interesting. England's defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka leaves Group A intriguingly poised: the final round of games has become a quarter-final in all but name.

But the forecast for Sunday is far from wonderful. England are scheduled to play New Zealand in Cardiff and, if it rains throughout, net run-rate will decide their fate. It will be of little consolation to England that this Champions Trophy is proving as entertaining as it is unpredictable.

There were two main reasons for England's downfall at The Oval. The first was some high-quality batting from Sri Lanka - and Kumar Sangakkara in particular - and the second was the England bowlers' inability to find enough lateral movement. With the white ball offering little conventional swing and, on this surface, little reverse swing either, England lacked the weapons to stem the tide of runs.

It left them, like a battery of Jade Dernbach's, over-reliant on slower balls and the short ball. And, on a slow surface against such good, calm batsmen, that was no answer. Whereas against Australia, England were able to bowl length and contain the batsmen through reverse swing, here their length deliveries were punished and the varieties lacked the subtlety or bite to worry the Sri Lankan batsmen.

It was a game that exposed England's limitations. They are a good side, certainly, but confronted by flair and experience on the truest of surfaces, they lack the ability to damage opposition. Kevin Pietersen or Steven Finn might have made a difference but the former is still unavailable due to injury and the latter was not selected after some patchy form. On the basis of this performance, Finn should probably have played ahead of Tim Bresnan, but hindsight makes such decisions facile.

Besides, it may well be inappropriate to criticise England too much for this defeat. While there were some areas in which they could have done better - there was a notable lack of yorkers and the total was not much above par - the truth is that England were, on the day, beaten by the better side. While the Sri Lankan fielding did not quite match England's, their bowlers delivered few bad balls and their batsmen demonstrated greater versatility and more scoring options.

"The difference was an outstanding hundred by an outstanding cricketer," Cook admitted afterwards. "Sometimes you come up short against a guy who plays as well as that and you don't feel quite so bad. That was a very fine hundred. He didn't give a chance, so we can't sit here and say we had our opportunities.

"I'm not too disappointed. Cleary we had an opportunity to get in the semi-finals and we didn't take it, but we have another one in the next game."

The circumstances exposed England's lack of a Plan B with the ball. Without the ability to get the ball to swing or reverse swing, the England bowlers were rendered impotent.

There was actually rather a lot to celebrate in England's batting. Jonathan Trott, with 76 from 87 balls, batted with a fluency that must have satisfied even his critics; Joe Root shrugged off the events of recent days to produce another nerveless performance with the bat and Ravi Bopara continued his impressive return to the team with a cameo that provided a reminder of the high-quality batsmen he might still become at this level.

It was not a perfect batting performance. England's acceleration was halted when they lost three wickets without scoring a run in the 46th and 47th overs but, bearing in mind how the high-risk approach the middle-order batsmen are obliged to take, such things will happen. Eoin Morgan could console himself with the thought that he was the victim of another poor umpiring decision by Billy Bowden, too. It is surely the case that the best umpires go home without the crowd noticing them; Bowden is not that sort.

"Our total was about par," Cook continued. "300 wins you a lot of games, but it was a fine hundred from Sangakkara. The one guy who struggled to time it was me. If we had put another 20 runs on the board, it might have been a different story. I think we were pretty satisfied, but it is amazing how those little two or three overs can change the game."

Perhaps more pertinently, the circumstances exposed England's lack of a Plan B with the ball. Without the ability to get the ball to swing or reverse swing, the England bowlers were rendered impotent. What little turn that Graeme Swann could find was slow and while James Anderson remained threatening, the rest of the bowlers had no answer to Sri Lanka's onslaught. As a result, they bowled too short, too often.

The decision to change one of the balls in mid-innings was intriguing. England were clearly unhappy that a ball that was just showing signs of reversing was replaced, with the umpires stating that it was "mis-shapen". It is rare, though not unique, for umpires to replace a ball without the wishes of the fielding side and will encourage those who want to believe that there is something untoward about England's method of gaining reverse swing. For all the talk, though, there is no evidence of anything untoward.

"The ball was changed because it was out of shape," Cook said. "The umpires make those decisions and you have to accept them. Sometimes you don't think they're the right decisions. The wicket got better and better as the lights came on to it. We knew that would happen with the amount of drizzle there had been in the last couple of games."

The one tactic England might have tried was to deliver more yorkers. Hawkeye shows England bowled only two or three yorkers in the entire Sri Lanka innings and none at all to Sangakkara. Sri Lanka, by contrast, bowled at least 10. Whether it is a tactical decision or England's bowlers lack the skill, which seems unlikely, it is an area in which they can surely improve. The game may have changed in some ways, but a well-directed yorker remains an essential part of the bowling package in all forms of cricket.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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