Alastair Cook made a mockery of his dour one-day reputation by galloping along to an extraordinary 75-ball 95, as England crushed Sri Lanka by ten wickets in the fourth ODI at Trent Bridge. The final margin was exactly the same as Sri Lanka themselves had inflicted on England in the World Cup quarter-final in Colombo back in March, and though this display hardly atoned for that drubbing on the game's biggest stage, it was nevertheless a hugely significant performance. The series is now squared at 2-2 with one to play, but more importantly, Cook has stated his credentials as a one-day cricketer in the plainest terms imaginable.
Admittedly, he will face tougher days at the crease, for Sri Lanka's bowlers performed dreadfully in defence of a substandard total of 174, serving up a diet of half-volleys, long-hops and leg-stump deliveries that fed every one of Cook's renowned strengths. But, as Mahela Jayawardene had demonstrated in his matchwinning displays at Headingley and Lord's last week, the secret to one-day opening is finding the gaps in the field. Cook struck 64 of his runs from 16 perfectly timed and placed fours, and he was only denied a century when Craig Kieswetter, at the behest of his captain, cleared the ropes twice in his last ten deliveries, as England hustled to victory in 23.5 overs.
This was England's first ten-wicket victory since South Africa played at the same ground in 2008, but the target on that occasion had been a meagre 83. Cook and Kieswetter's eventual stand of 171 (after a brief shower had shaved two overs off the chase) was England's highest for any wicket against Sri Lanka, and apart from anything else, it served to demonstrate just how inadequate their opponents' own batting had been earlier in the day.
After two matches played out in glorious sunshine at Headingley and Lord's, today's overcast conditions were a throwback to Sri Lanka's thumping defeat in the first match at The Oval. And once again, England's bowlers thrived in the swinging conditions. James Anderson reprised his new-ball performance in that Oval game to take 3 for 24 in eight overs, as Sri Lanka collapsed to 20 for 4 inside the first nine overs. Kumar Sangakkara prevented a complete meltdown with a gutsy 75, but only Angelo Mathews, who made 39 in a sixth-wicket stand of 72, could provide any lasting support.
Though it was overshadowed in the final analysis, Sangakkara's innings was as significant as Cook's in terms of timing. Following on from his majestic speech to the MCC at Lord's on Monday, he showed that his attack on the "cronies" who are ruining the game in his country had not distracted him from his principal role of run-scoring. After bearing the brunt of England's new-ball attack to reach an 80-ball half-century, he was last man out in the 44th over, caught off a leading edge to give Jade Dernbach his best ODI figures of 3 for 38.
The key bowler, however, was Anderson, who set the tone by extracting Tillakaratne Dilshan for a duck in the first over of the day. A full-length delivery swung just a fraction to graze the edge of the bat, and was easily pouched by Kieswetter behind the stumps. Three overs later, Tim Bresnan provided a variation on the same theme to dislodge Sri Lanka's form batsman, Jayawardene, for 9 - the ball nibbled off the seam and took the splice of a poorly-judged push outside off.
Within five deliveries, Anderson had struck again, as Dinesh Chandimal was pinned lbw for a duck by a full-length inducker, as if to suggest that Cook's invocation of the cricketing gods after Chandimal's Lord's century had paid dividends. And Anderson soon made it three in five overs, as Thilina Kandamby continued his poor series with a limp fence to second slip.
Stuart Broad's introduction to the attack started inauspiciously when he was edged second-ball through the vacant third slip for four, and his figures were starting to suffer at the hands of Suraj Randiv when he extracted a thin edge down the legside, to claim his first wicket of the series. He doubled his tally when Jeevan Mendis edged a lifter to the keeper, while Bresnan took the Catch of the Day award with a superb finger-tipped chance off Mathews, as he dived forward in his followthrough to scoop a leading edge.
With rain in the air and an onus on fast scoring to get ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis requirement, Cook was set on his way by three fours in the space of consecutive deliveries from Nuwan Kulasekara - two on a driveable length, and one ripe for a clip off the toes. Lasith Malinga then offered a rank long-hop that Cook carved past point, before Kulasekara's figures were further desecrated in a dreadful third over that went for 15 - seven in two balls to Cook, followed by a brace of boundaries for Kieswetter, whose method was agricultural but unquestionably effective in the circumstances.
Sri Lanka's bowling did not improve. Suranga Lakmal's line and length was non-existent as Cook cashed in on two half-volleys and a long-hop in the space of 10 deliveries to hurtle along to a 37-ball half-century, and England's only moment of alarm came when the clouds closed in midway through the eighth over. The 20-minute break served only to sharpen England's focus, and by the time Kieswetter slog-swept Randiv over midwicket for six to reach a 48-ball fifty, the only relevant target was the 20-over mark that would ensure a victory in the event of rain.
As with Mike Atherton's 98 not out on this ground against South Africa in 1998, Cook declined the opportunity to put personal milestones ahead of team glory as Kieswetter took control of the innings tempo in the final overs of the game. A second hundred in as many ODIs would have been richly deserved in the circumstances, but seeing as he has scored seven in his past 17 international innings, Cook will not be mourning the one that got away.