England add element of intrigue to victory with use of Adil Rashid

After opening the bowling in India, Rashid held back until 12th over as Morgan looks for flexibility

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Adil Rashid celebrates after team-mate Chris Jordan's catch to remove Wanindu Hasaranga, England vs Sri Lanka, 1st T20I, Cardiff, June 23, 2021

Adil Rashid celebrates after team-mate Chris Jordan's catch to remove Wanindu Hasaranga  •  PA Images via Getty Images

This was not how England had pictured their first white-ball international in front of a home crowd since the 2019 World Cup final. Before the Covid pandemic struck, it was due to be a T20 international against Australia at a sold-out Chester-le-Street on a Friday night last July, with the ECB doubtless planning a pre-match trophy parade months in advance, with local boys Ben Stokes and Mark Wood front and centre.
Instead, it took place in front of fewer than 3,000 socially-distanced fans in another country altogether, on a two-paced Cardiff pitch against a Sri Lanka side described by their own captain, Kusal Perera, as "not up to the mark in one-day and T20 [cricket]" at the toss. Not that many around the world would have noticed: most were glued to the closing stages of New Zealand's World Test Championship run chase, with Ross Taylor hitting the winning boundary halfway through Chris Woakes' first over.
The crowd would have been half that size but for a late change in Welsh government regulations, and while a pocket of away fans - who sang "Go Lanka, Go!" until their voices were hoarse - and a few hardy students in fancy dress did their best to liven things up, there were times when this match felt like the last round of drinks of the night: nobody could quite remember who had ordered it, or why.
But if the spectacle and the setting were not quite as hoped, there was no denying the quality of the performance from an England side ranked No. 1 in the world in this format by the ICC. The game was set up by their bowlers, who have only conceded fewer runs in a full-length first innings twice since 2011, before Jason Roy and Jos Buttler put the total into perspective with a rollicking opening stand that finished it as a contest before the end of the powerplay.
If it feels as though England have been fine-tuning ahead of an imminent T20 World Cup for the best part of 18 months, that's because they have: with the first of back-to-back tournaments postponed from 2020 to 2022 by the pandemic, there has been an ICC event looming on the horizon since their T20I series in South Africa last February. But with only 10 fixtures scheduled between tonight and the start of the World Cup in October - and perhaps only five before the squad is named - this is the start of the home straight.
In that light, the most intriguing part of England's night was their use of Adil Rashid, who bowled a four-over spell without conceding a boundary for only the second time in his T20I career (the previous time was also against Sri Lanka, in Colombo in 2018).
Like most legspinners, Rashid has generally been used as a middle-overs banker throughout his England career, particularly in this format. While Eoin Morgan has often rolled the dice in ODIs and used him at the death, making use of the extra fielder allowed outside the ring in the final 10 overs, he has tended to stick to a simple formula in T20Is, bringing him on in the seventh over with the field spread, and giving him four overs on the bounce through to the end of the 13th.
But that has changed drastically in the last three months. In India in March, Rashid opened the bowling in four games out of five as Morgan looked to address England's long-running struggles in the powerplay by exploiting match-ups against India's predominantly right-handed top-order, despite the fact that he had rarely bowled in the phase in his T20 career. It worked a treat: he conceded only 34 runs from six powerplay overs in the series, and is now a viable option with the new ball for the World Cup.
And at Sophia Gardens, there was another sign of experimentation. Morgan turned to spin in the eighth over, but it came in the form of Liam Livingstone, rather than Rashid. Livingstone bowled his usual assortment of offbreaks, leggies and sliders to return 1 for 9 in his two overs, trapping Kusal Menids lbw with a flat, full legbreak, but with the short straight boundaries at the River Taff End effectively limiting Morgan to using spin at one end, Rashid's introduction was delayed to the 12th over.
By that stage Sri Lanka had slipped to 69 for 4, and were clearly heading for a below-par score, but Rashid's spell was impressive all the same, with figures of 2 for 17 from four boundary-free overs. His length was the key, and unerringly consistent: according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, 22 of his 24 balls were on a good length, with one full ball and one that pitched back-of-a-length. The majority were flat and into the pitch; the two that he tossed up were thumped straight down Chris Jordan's throat at long-on.
One of Morgan's great strengths as a captain is his ability to take himself out of a game and think in the long term. It is hard to picture Rashid bowling the 16th and 18th overs, as he did tonight, in a T20 World Cup semi-final or final, but knockout games often throw up unlikely situations: think back to Joe Root opening the bowling in the 2016 final.
"Morgan might take a decision that may not suit the game, but it may have the World Cup in mind," Buttler said after the game; if Rashid finds himself bowling at the death with the trophy on the line, this will be another experience for him to fall back on.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98