Fernando holds his nerve to seal a thriller
Sri Lanka's slick professionalism in the field, and Dilhara Fernando's composure in the final over, earned them a nail biting win over England in Antigua. Though Sri Lanka only compiled a relatively modest 236, England's middle-order fell away meekly before a thrilling fightback from Paul Nixon and Ravi Bopara dragged down the required total to just 12 from the final over. It was two too many.
Fernando was thrown the ball for the final over, but his second ball was paddled - quite brilliantly - over short fine-leg by Bopara for four. Seven needed from four balls, but Bopara's crunching drive couldn't pierce the covers, picking up just two - enough, though, to register his first one-day fifty. A single off the fourth ball; another off the fifth but, with three needed from the final ball, Fernando cleaned up Bopara to end a memorable match. That England even got into a winning position owed much to Nixon, whose crafty 42 at a run-a-ball took them out of the woods and into the clearing.
Just an hour or so earlier, the match was England's for the taking, however. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen were cruising along in their commanding third-wicket stand of 90, regaining the momentum after losing Michael Vaughan and Ed Joyce cheaply. Pietersen, inevitably, took the game by the scruff, asserting his authority on Lasith Malinga with a front-footed pull and a fierce slap through the covers. Once he had lofted Chaminda Vaas for an effortless six, Pietersen was in complete control of proceedings.
Bell was less certain - although, next to Pietersen, most batsmen are. But he too found his fluency, clipping two fours off one Vaas over, one behind square and the other threaded through covers, before Sanath Jayasuriya affected a cruel run out. Pietersen pushed it back to the bowler who deflected it via his fingertips onto the non-striker's stumps. Bell appeared to ground his bat but replays showed it had lifted by a few millimetres. It was a stroke of fortune Sri Lanka needed, and they capitalised brilliantly.
Pietersen brought up an uncharacteristically sedate 74-ball 50 - before the magician, Muttiah Muralitharan, was brought on. His spell began quietly before he tossed down a doosra to Pietersen who, trying to work it to leg, got a leading edge ballooning it back to Murali. It was his 28th caught-and-bowled and with Pietersen departing at 126 for 4, England's hopes sunk. Andrew Flintoff scratched around for a couple of overs, skying Fernando's slower ball to Malinga at mid-on. And Collingwood ended what little hope of victory England had when he was trapped in front two balls later.
Enter Nixon, reverse-sweeping with furious intent, if not great success initially, nurdling singles with relative ease. An old head needed young legs though - and Nixon was joined by Bopara, whose maturity and proficiency has been a distinct, rare highlight for England so far this tournament. 67 balls later, the young-old combination had a 50-run partnership to their name. And without ever attacking the target with real intent, they chipped away to bring the required runs down to 32 from three overs.
Nixon then unfurled the shot of the day, a remarkable reverse-swept six off Muralitharan to raise hopes of unlikely victory. In the end, Sri Lanka's discipline in the middle overs proved the decisive factor.
England were no less impressive in the field earlier in the day, capping a one-day match in which, for once, the bowlers shone. The big fear was whether the nightmares of last summer - when Sri Lanka drubbed them 5-0, saving particular scorn for Sajid Mahmood - would haunt them. It didn't. James Anderson and Mahmood, the two opening bowlers in an unchanged lineup, were tight, controlled and impressively accurate in their opening spells.
With Jayasuriya falling cheaply, Sri Lanka's middle-order was opened up but Mahela Jayawardene's solid fifty from 61 balls provided much-needed fluency to an innings lacking momentum. How crucial it was in the end, too. His class with the bat and growing maturity as a leader - not to mention calmness under pressure - is a very reassuring sign for Sri Lanka's future and particularly for this tournament.
Sri Lanka take the two points, and were deserved victors, but England can take pride and encouragement from a far improved performance. They still lost, though, and their next game against Australia now takes on an even greater significance.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo