Spirited England shock Sri Lanka
Sometimes you just have to get away from it all to find what you are really looking for. After embracing embarrassment throughout a lamentable one-day series against Australia, England's cricketers travelled 6000 miles south from Durham to Johannesburg, where to the astonishment of players, spectators and pundits alike, they atoned for their shortcomings by toppling the tournament pace-setters, Sri Lanka, in their opening match of the Champions Trophy.
Dossier-compilers across the cricketing world will doubtless enquire exactly how England passed the time during their 11-hour long-haul flight on Monday, but if their performance stopped short of being sexy cricket, it did at least last rather longer than most of their recent efforts. An ecstatic new-ball onslaught from James Anderson and Graham Onions set England on course for victory as early as the sixth over of the match as Sri Lanka slumped to 17 for 4, and though Thilan Kandamby and Angelo Mathews responded manfully with a pair of well-paced half-centuries, Sri Lanka's eventual total of 212 was chased down with something approaching assurance, with 30 balls to spare.
After the early loss of both openers, including the potentially devastating dismissal of Andrew Strauss for 9 via a stunning one-handed interception by Kandamby at midwicket, Paul Collingwood lifted England's intensity with a bullish 46 from 51 balls that included three leg-side sixes, before Eoin Morgan sealed the deal with his highest score in ODIs for England. In between whiles, Owais Shah put his recent jitters behind him with a calm and comfortable 44 that drew the sting of Sri Lanka's spinners, particularly the off-colour Muttiah Muralitharan, before Matt Prior partnered Morgan to the close with an aggressive unbeaten 28.
It truly was an upset of the highest order, because the two teams could hardly have come together with their form and fortunes more polarised. In Sri Lanka's opening fixture at Centurion on Tuesday, they racked up the small matter of 319 for 8 as they routed the hosts and tournament favourites, South Africa, in a rain-curtailed contest. England, on the other hand, sloped belatedly into the country with their morale at their bootlaces and their form under a cloud, after the humiliations of their 6-1 trouncing by Australia.
This time, however, being under a cloud suited England perfectly. On a green-tinged surface that might have been imported from Uxbridge in April, Strauss won his seventh toss in eight ODIs, and was delighted to unleash a seam-heavy attack in which Onions had been chosen in preference to Tim Bresnan, despite having played only one previous 50-over international. Sure enough, his faith was quickly repaid, as Onions extracted the out-of-form Sanath Jayasuriya with his fifth delivery, caught behind nibbling outside off for a second-ball duck.
Four balls later, and Anderson extracted the prize scalp of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka's centurion against South Africa, who had been frustrated for 11 probing deliveries in which his only scoring shot was a prod down to third man. He fell to a scything slash to point off the fullest delivery of Anderson's spell, whereupon Mahela Jayawardene - who seemed to have decided to go down swinging from the outset - was pinned lbw for 9 as he attempted an over-ambitious flick across the line.
Kumar Sangakkara endured a torrid mini-innings - he was struck amidships first-ball by a wicked inducker from Onions, but then chased a ball that might well have been called wide, had he not connected with his edge and flashed a high chance to Andrew Strauss at first slip. At 17 for 4 after 32 deliveries, Sri Lanka were staring at the sort of humiliation that West Indies (47 for 7) encountered on this same surface against Pakistan on Wednesday.
But Anderson and Onions could not continue indefinitely, and the arrival of Stuart Broad loosened the shackles enough for Sri Lanka to wriggle free. From his second delivery, Samaraweera drove an indifferent length ball through the covers for four, before following up with a handsome slash through point for a second boundary, and before long, England had truly lost the plot. In total, they served up an unforgiveable 21 wides, as they searched for killer deliveries in a bid to skittle the Sri Lankans inside 30 overs, whereas the more patient approach adopted by the Sri Lankan batsmen would have been far more appropriate.
Broad took a while to gauge the pace and length for the surface - often his biggest failing as a bowler seems to be his inexperience - while his indiscipline spread to Onions' bowling as well, who beat Samaraweera with a vicious bouncer that almost knocked the batsman off his feet, only to squander that surprise element by beating the life out of the middle of the wicket, instead of pitching it up and inviting the ball to swing. Samaraweera followed up two overs later with back-to-back fours off Onions, before guiding another Broad bouncer over the slips and away through third man.
But, just as England were beginning to strain for inspiration, Broad rediscovered a good length outside off, and Samaraweera's enterprising innings of 30 from 48 balls came to an end thanks to a sharp catch from Paul Collingwood in the gully. Collingwood then followed up with an eight-over spell of accurate cutters that didn't realise any wickets, but conceded just 24 runs in the process - almost half the rate at which Onions and Luke Wright were dispatched.
It took a run-out for England to truly regain their control of the contest, as Kandamby set off for a second run from a push into the covers, only to find Mathews rooted to the crease at the striker's end. Two overs later, they claimed their second run-out ... but Strauss, with visions of Collingwood's vilification in a similar situation against New Zealand last summer, asked the umpires to reverse the decision. Mathews had turned Onions into the leg-side, and set off for an intended two, only to collide with Onions, who had tracked back towards the non-striker's stumps, and with no apparent intent in his actions, was standing right next to Mathews as he turned blind on completing his run.
Mathews was visibly unimpressed with the decision, and gesticulated as such as he left the crease, but it wasn't until he was in the pavilion tunnel that Strauss called him back to the crease. Three balls and one run later, his generosity was repaid, as Mathews nibbled outside off, and edged Wright low to Prior behind the stumps. As he left the crease for the second time, he acknowledged Strauss's sportsmanship with a wave. Cricket was the winner, and several forests-worth of newsprint were spared.
Muralitharan cashed in with an enterprising slogged 18 before he and Malinga had their stumps demolished in consecutive deliveries from Broad, but at the halfway mark, Sri Lanka appeared to have a more-than-competitive total on the board, especially when Kulasekera struck to remove Denly and Strauss inside his first four overs. But the dewy conditions did not play to Sri Lanka's strengths in the slightest. The same, however, could not be said for England, who have now stormed to the top of their group. Wonders truly will never cease.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo