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Match Analysis

Sam Curran stands tall for home crowd in England's merciless display against Sri Lanka

Surrey seamer chooses perfect stage to bag first international five-wicket haul

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Sam Curran celebrates his five-for, England vs Sri Lanka, 2nd ODI, The Oval, July 1, 2021

Sam Curran celebrates his five-for  •  Getty Images

It had been two years since the last crowd reaction at an international cricket match in London, but this was perhaps not the noise that might have been expected after such a tedious wait.
Eoin Morgan won the toss for England, which is generally the prelude to some measure of jubilation from a home crowd. Instead, an audible groan rumbled out of the JM Finn Stand as he chose to bowl first - at least, that's where it seemed to have come from. It could equally have resonated from the snaking queues outside the Alec Stewart Gates, where many of The Oval's 14,000 patrons were finding the post-Covid protocols to be understandably time-consuming, and from where - at four wickets down in barely half an hour - they may have wondered if there'd be any contest left to witness when they entered.
Such is the lack of jeopardy in a series that has had about as much chance of blazing into life as a bag full of Ageas Bowl grass clippings. Not for the first time, Sri Lanka found individuals capable of delaying the inevitable - most heroically Dhananjaya de Silva - and in dragging the match out to 8.30pm, they survived at least three hours longer than had at one stage seemed likely. And yet England's collective had the depth and efficiency to pick off the moments that mattered, like Novak Djokovic toying with a first-week victim at Wimbledon.
Of course, it only ever seems to be England who are accused of "winning the wrong way" - there's always some existential big picture creeping into the moments that less paranoid victors would take in their stride. Would Australia, for instance, ever have stopped to mind their manners while mauling Namibia at the 2003 World Cup? And on the day that Sri Lanka's seventh loss in eight matches took them past India's tally as the most-defeated ODI team of all time, there wasn't ever likely to be a "right way" to skin these particular cats.
With a series on the line and World Cup Super League points up for grabs, what's a skipper to do? Morgan's men have long had a predilection for chasing, and as things transpired, his faith in his batters - himself included - was justified with 42 balls to spare. But on a tantalisingly straw-coloured pitch, and with the home favourite Jason Roy back to fitness (and, as it transpired, form), it was clear that a significant proportion of the Oval returnees would have preferred him to plant the front foot and put on a show from the outset.
Sam Curran, on the other hand, might argue that that's precisely what happened. Surrey's pint-sized pad terrorist, with his skiddy each-way swing and nonsensically effective bouncer, chose an opportune stage to display his preternatural game-craft and bag the first England five-for of his 47-match multi-format career.
That stat in itself isn't entirely surprising, for Curran's England career to date has been a tapestry of "moments" from a player who has always had something about him, but no-one can quite tell what yet, least of all his opponents - three vital wickets here, 30 briskly-biffed runs there; his every appearance in the limelight as random and fascinating as his myriad different roles in Chennai Super Kings' IPL reboot.
But today was something different - an out-and-out annexing of the match situation from a player who isn't exactly bored of being peripheral in England's one-day set-up, but whose growth in these curiously fallow months since the World Cup win is causing the team dynamic to remould around his remarkably larger-than-life game.
Let's not forget, it was only two ODIs ago, in the series decider against India in Pune no less, that Curran crashed his way to an incredible 95 not out from 83 balls, to take a seemingly lost cause to the wire. Had he not been turning down singles in the process, while marshalling the tail from No.8, he'd have romped to a matchwinning century with room to spare.
So, frankly, it is rude to quibble with what transpired - a Powerplay in the most literal sense, as Curran transfixed Sri Lanka's static top-order with belittling poise. One ball threatening to move, the next ball thudding straight on, another hooping wickedly, a fourth curling just enough. Each and every one delivered with an awkward whirling left-arm scuttle, as harassing as it was unfamiliar, and not quite quick enough to just swing through the line and let physics do the rest.
"We've played a lot of a lot of cricket in front of empty stadiums for obvious reasons, but today in front of my home crowd at The Oval was really special," Curran said. "You get that extra bit of buzz. Obviously I played that Test match [in 2018] but I hadn't played any white-ball cricket here. It's one of my favourite grounds in the world and it showed that today. It was really special, a great wicket, a great game and a great crowd. It's great to have the fans back in.
David Willey at the other end was barely less of a nuisance with his own left-arm offerings, and when Charitha Asalanka pulled him to square leg in a futile bid to break the shackles, Sri Lanka were 21 for 4 and the game was cooked. Dhananjaya played exquisitely in the circumstances, restating the fact that international quality batters are in short supply in this injury and indiscretion-depleted squad. Once the new-ball swing had done its worst, he alone had the technique to cope with England's short balls. The rest were all too easily set up and swatted aside - not least the dogged Dasun Shanaka, whose 47 from 67 balls ended with a sucker-punch to deep point.
And so it was a mauling by lions rather than a clash of the gladiators, but were the masses entertained on their return to the arena after so many months away? Well, the Barmy Army sang their songs, as their new trumpeter showcased his jazz stylings in numerous renditions of Twist and Shout and I Want To Break Free. The bars were busy, and plentifully frequented in the second innings in particular, as if to compensate for the bumbling match situation. Sweet Caroline got an obligatory airing in the dying minutes. The sun shone and the night was still young by the end of it all. Standing tall amid the gentle griping, there was a young star stretching his wings for his home audience, after 24 barren months. All things considered, it ended up as a perfectly pleasing spectacle.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket