Morgan keeps cool as England march on
Eoin Morgan, England's captain, displayed the same calm in the aftermath of victory that he and his team had shown at the height of a pulsating contest in Delhi, as he played down the significance of England's progress to the semi-finals of the World T20 by insisting he was happy simply to see the improvement in their performances from match to match.
England appeared to have the contest done and dusted when Sri Lanka collapsed to 15 for 4 in the third over, chasing a daunting target of 172 thanks to Jos Buttler's hard-hitting 66 not out from 37 balls. However, Sri Lanka's captain, Angelo Mathews, rallied his side with a superb 73 not out from 54 balls and, with 15 runs needed from the final six balls, it took an exemplary over from Ben Stokes to put England through to the last four.
Morgan, however, claimed he was unmoved by the magnitude of the performance, stating that he had played in "edgier" matches in the past, and added that he hadn't arrived at the tournament with any expectations of what England could or could not achieve.
Nevertheless, they are potentially just two victories away from becoming the first team to win the World T20 on two occasions, and Morgan - who was a key member of the side that won England's inaugural global trophy in 2010 - did concede that he had learned a great deal about the character of his players, with both bat and ball.
"I don't expect a great deal, to be honest," he said. "I don't set expectations, barriers, limitations. It's all about getting the best out of what we have and, at the moment, we seem to be doing that. If we do that from here on in we put ourselves in really good position."
England's qualification for the semi-finals has come at the end of four draining and very varied contests, from the Chris Gayle-inspired demolition in their opening fixture at the Wankhede, via the thrill of their record-breaking run-chase against South Africa, and on through the near-embarrassment of their top-order collapse against Afghanistan.
This victory, however, involved a subtly different type of pressure, as England were required to hold their nerve as Sri Lanka roared back into a contest in which they had appeared to be down and out.
"I think in three of our wins we've had to show an immense amount of character," Morgan said. "Having to chase down 230 then, against Afghanistan we put our backs against the wall early and had to fight quite hard. And today it was completely different in the way we were way ahead of the game. It asked a completely different question of us."
England's task was not helped by the challenge of setting the pace of the match, after Morgan lost the toss and was asked to bat first. The opening overs were not auspicious: Rangana Herath's first over of left-arm spin was a wicket maiden and England were 8 for 1 in the third over before Jason Roy and Joe Root battled back with an agenda-setting second-wicket stand of 61.
Buttler then came to the fore in the closing overs of the innings, with Morgan acting as a willing foil alongside him. In total Buttler clubbed eight fours and two sixes as 72 runs were picked off in the final five overs of England's effort.
"With the bat we adapted a lot better than we did against Afghanistan," Morgan said. "We showed we are capable of playing both smart cricket and aggressive cricket. I think we've struggled to do that in the last six to eight months or so and it's an area we are constantly trying to improve.
"But today went a long way to doing that. The first 15 overs we batted weren't cautious but they were on the smart side and, given the value of having two 'in' batsman for the last five or so overs, the impact it can have with guys like Jos Buttler well set, that has a big impact on the game."
It was with the ball and in the field, however, where the match was won and lost. Two outstanding moments of fielding summed up the commitment that England brought to bear in the defence of their total - firstly, the full-length dive and underarm shy with which Stokes ran out Lahiru Thirimanne during the top-order collapse and then, with Sri Lanka turning the game in their favour in the penultimate over, Joe Root's stunning interception of a full-blooded drive at mid-off to remove Dasun Shanaka and leave a now-hobbling Mathews with too much to do single-handedly.
"It gave us a huge lift, wickets are priceless at that stage of the game," Morgan said. But, he added, the spin-off benefits of that wicket were even more important than the dismissal itself. The ball reached Root so quickly that the batsmen were unable to cross, which bought the bowler, Chris Jordan, a further moment of respite with the runs-to-balls equation getting critical.
"That was a bigger benefit really," Morgan said. "It was hugely significant for the overall outlook on the over, and then into the next over as well [because] a batsman who's only faced one ball is a completely different outlook as opposed to a guy who's smoking it."
Morgan's rational analysis of such crunch situations is one of the key reasons why he is indispensable to a young England team, in spite of his relative lack of impact with the bat in the tournament so far. And, he revealed, the dismissal of Shanaka had provided an opportunity to inject a touch of levity into a cut-throat situation.
"You can be quite objective about things," he said. "Chris Jordan bowled an absolute jed of a ball that went for four runs and the next ball was a worse ball and he got a wicket. So I was able to go, 'oh well, that's T20 cricket, that can happen'. And when I'm in that frame of mind I know I can make good decisions. So today I was able to maintain that, which is a good space to be in."
Nevertheless, Morgan reserved his major plaudits for Stokes, the man who closed out the contest with a nerveless diet of yorkers that Mathews was unable to dispatch with the velocity he had previously been inflicting on England's spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.
"They were in the game right until the end so Ben Stokes' last over was as crucial as it gets," he said. "Angelo was set and, like with Jos in our innings, when you are bowling to a batsman who is in, it is so significant in a T20 game. But Stokesy has done it before, against Australia last year, and has done it since then a couple of times, and the character they showed today was brilliant."
With West Indies all but confirmed as the Group 1 winners, England can now brace themselves for a semi-final at the same venue against New Zealand on Wednesday. And though Morgan indicated that there might be a small advantage in having prior knowledge of the conditions, thanks to two group-stage matches at the Feroz Shah Kotla, he played down the significance against a team such as New Zealand who have played to their strengths all tournament long and are sure to find the conditions in Delhi conducive to their slow-bowling attack.
England, by contrast, have struggled to find the same purchase that their spinners, Moeen and Rashid, achieved at the Wankhede. Their combined tally of four overs were ruthlessly dispatched for 63 runs, an onslaught that nearly cost England the game.
Morgan, however, insisted he had been unruffled. "It wasn't a great concern given the position we'd put ourselves in," he said. "It was still a substantial ask for Sri Lanka to chase us down.
"Angelo put himself in the best position possible to do that towards the back end and, in order to do that, he did what he had to do against the spinners. Between now and the semi-final we have to come up with some answers about how we get batsmen like that out."
Looking ahead to the New Zealand challenge, he added: "The way I look at it is: their strength is spin, our strength is seam, although it can be spin on some days, given the conditions. That's what makes us so adaptable. We bowl the majority of overs with seam or we can bowl eight overs of spin, and maybe 12 if Rooty comes on.
"We'll take a lot of confidence from today. The overall performance can give us a couple of days to let the dust settle, reflect on what happened and take the absolute beauties into the semi-final."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket