Until today, Sri Lanka Women had never beaten any of the big four sides - Australia, England, India, and New Zealand. They chose to start with the biggest scalp of them all, on the biggest stage of them all. There have been some huge upsets in men's World Cup history, but a defending champion going down first match against one of the weakest teams has to rank on par, if not above them.
The powerfully-built seam-bowling allrounder Eshani Kaushalya set up a nerve-shredder of a last-ball result with an unrelenting assault, her strong forearms responding to her unshakeable belief, and drilling boundary after boundary past, and over, helpless England fielders. The match had been Sri Lanka's to lose, when they needed 97 runs to win with nine wickets remaining. But England, having already fought back earlier with the bat, were up for another scrap.
They started striking, and Sri Lanka, known for losing steam after promising openings, started falling apart. Even as her team-mates kept coming and going, Kaushalya, strapping shoulders and arms to match, took Sri Lanka closer. The asking-rate was already more than a run a ball when she came in at No. 6 with 82 more required. And it wasn't until her 11th delivery that she found the boundary, when she swung Hally Colvin to the deep midwicket rope. She was on 3 off 10 before the shot. She was to take 53 off her next 31.
A couple of straight sixes against the spinners arrived, followed by consecutive fours to wide long-off against Arran Brindle. In the same over, the 46th, Brindle took out Sri Lanka's seventh wicket. In the 47th, and her last, Katherine Brunt, the premier England fast bowler, conceded just four. The asking-rate had touched ten when Kaushalya exploded, taking 16 off the 48th bowled by Jenny Gunn. Gunn had top-scored for England with 52, but had put down Kaushalya on 10 at wide long-on in the 43rd over.
Kaushalya made Gunn pay dearly for that drop and some low full tosses. A misfield at mid-on produced three, and got Kaushalya on strike. She cracked three of the next four deliveries for fours, targetting wide long-off and extra cover again. With 13 needed off the final two overs, Sri Lanka were now ahead.
But the defending champions didn't give up. Danielle Hazell gave just four in the 49th, and took a wicket, leaving Sri Lanka to get nine off the last over. Kaushalya came on strike second ball, and promptly dispatched Georgia Elwiss over the deep square-leg rope. Kaushalya jumped for joy, and the celebrations had started in the Sri Lanka camp.
On the third ball, Kaushalya mishit high in the air and rushed for a single, only for the bowler to drop the catch close to the non-striker's stumps, and for England to put in a desperate, unsuccessful appeal for obstruction. In her own desperation to earn the remaining run needed for victory, Kaushalya charged up too far fourth ball and was run out for 56 off 41.
The wicketkeeper Dilani Manodara found backward point off the fifth ball as Charlotte Edwards ordered every England fielder inside the circle. With a tie looming, Manodara got a good length final delivery, sent it soaring over deep midwicket and went down screaming on her knees as her team-mates mobbed her.
Although Kaushalya and Manodara got them over the line, it wasn't to take away anything from the century-opening stand between Yasoda Mendis and Chamari Atapattu, the latter especially surprising England with an aggressive mindset from the beginning. Pulling, driving, sweeping, cutting, steering her way to 62 off 72, Atapattu brought the game alive again, after it seemed England had escaped to a challenging score. The stage was set for the captain Shashikala Siriwardene to be counted with a brisk 34, and for Kaushalya to perform the act of her career and overcome England's second fightback on the day.
The first had been necessitated when, after being asked to bat, England were stuttering at 29 for 3. Edwards had walked across to be bowled by Kaushalya, and Danielle Wyatt and Lydia Greenway had gone leg-before to the tossed-up deliveries of Chamani Seneviratna. Brindle and Heather Knight made thirties to steady things with several easy singles, helped by Siriwardene keeping three, largely idle fielders in the deep on the leg side.
A needless run-out ended that partnership and brought Gunn to the middle. Gunn and the keeper Amy Jones, debuting in place of the injured Sarah Taylor, pushed the score towards 200. England took 79 off the final seven overs, helped by some big hitting from Brunt and Hazell. The late push seemed to have given England enough cushion; Kaushalya was to push harder.