Jayawardene stands by captaincy switch
Sri Lanka resembled an engine purring assuredly on the starting grid, as they tuned up all their parts in another dominant victory to finish at the top of their Super Eights group. The openers provided a solid platform and critically, this time, the young middle order also delivered a good finish. Lasith Malinga returned to his penetrative best, Nuwan Kulasekara achieved quietly again, and Akila Dananjaya continued his fairytale, even if he looked a little like he had been in a bar fight in the hours before the match.
Sri Lanka's victory however, was slightly overshadowed by controversy. "Mahela has lost three tosses in a row," was the line Kumar Sangakkara tried to sell when he, not Mahela Jayawardene, turned out as captain for the toss, but it was quickly apparent a tad more trickery was afoot. Jayawardene and Sri Lanka had been fined for slow over rates during their previous match and, under the ICC code of conduct, he faces a one-match suspension if, under his watch, Sri Lanka fail to complete their overs in the allotted time again in the next 12 months.
The debate has been afire on social media since Sri Lanka took the field and it became obvious that Jayawardene was still in the saddle - at one point even approaching the umpires to get a ball changed. Sri Lanka were flouting the rules, which were put in place to try and curb slow over rates. With Sangakkara in place as an empty suit, Jayawardene was clear to marshal the attack at his leisure, where under threat of suspension, he might have paid more heed to the clock. Was this an unfair advantage? Stuart Broad, after all, was also on notice for slow over rates, but had not passed the armband along to Jos Buttler with the excuse that Buttler been practicing the toss at training.
On the face of it of course official captain Sangakkara is well within his rights to delegate duties to anyone else in the team, even if that duty is to captain the team. But perhaps that is missing the point. In practice, Jayawardene had never given up leadership and some might find that difficult to make peace with. In the end, Sri Lanka were not fined again and it was all a little like paying out insurance premiums without ever making a claim.
The episode belies a more intriguing debate about the very rule itself. In practice, if that is what we are giving precedence to, Sri Lanka's rate of play did not make the match against West Indies noticeably duller. Why then should their captain and best batsman be at the risk of missing a crucial match in a major tournament? The punishment does not fit the crime, as Pakistan coach Dav Whatmore had noted when Misbah-ul-Haq was forced to miss a Test in June. Those arguing that, in practice, Jayawardene was the captain against England and should be punished for exploiting a loophole, cannot then become sticklers for a rule that itself seems short on practicality.
After the match, Jayawardene was open about his mischief and bore the expression of a man who enjoyed having cheated the system. When asked at the press conference why he was not officially captain, he joked "so you want Sanga here? I can go back".
"I might as well explain," he said eventually. "I had a warning for an over rates issue, and if it happens again I miss the match so what we did was have Kumar as the official captain. I don't think that the intentions were wrong. It's a tough system and it's tough to bowl 20 overs in one hour and 20 minutes in a tournament like this. We try our best, but the penalties are harsh. We don't want to miss the big games, so we did it with the right intentions.
"Angelo Mathews was on the same offence for a match against Pakistan in Hambantota, so if he got nailed he misses a game as well. We had to find someone who didn't have a rap sheet and Kumar fitted the bill."
Jayawardene also revealed the ploy had been thought out by team manager Charith Senanayake and that the team had verified the rules and consulted the ICC code of conduct before proceeding. "I'm sure they'll change the rules after this, but hopefully not in this tournament," he said.
The captaincy issue, though, should not take the sheen off a near-complete performance. The middle order had not yet proven itself in the tournament, but Angelo Mathews and Jeevan Mendis put on 52 from 31 balls for the fourth wicket, after Jayawardene and Sangakara fell in consecutive balls, before Thisara Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne combined for 36 from 19 after the previous pair had also perished in successive deliveries.
"Everyone has put their hand up and performed," Jayawardene said. "It was really good the middle order had a hit today. They showed the quality that we've got. Everyone was saying the top three were scoring runs, today we lost wickets up front against a top quality bowling attack, and those guys came out and did the job. They didn't go into a shell, they kept going and kept up the run rate. Unfortunately Jeevan and Angie got out to consecutive balls otherwise we probably could have ended up with 15 or 20 more runs, but I'll take 170 any day."
Malinga took three wickets in an over, and completed his first five-wicket bag in Twenty20s, to derail the England chase alongside Dananjaya, who took 2 for 26. Malinga's yorkers are yet to find the blockhole as consistently as they once did, but the haul will boost his confidence after a lean patch in which he appeared to have lost some of his venom, even if he retained his economy.
"In the last couple of months I didn't take many wickets, but I'm very happy with what I did today," Malinga said. "They wanted to come hard and hit boundaries during the Powerplay, but I did my variations and it worked for me."
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka