England pulled off a convincing win over Sri Lanka in the NatWest Series opener at Trent Bridge. After losing four wickets in the first 19 overs, a blitzed fifty from Andrew Flintoff and an innings of 83 from Alec Stewart took them to a total that was beyond Sri Lanka's reach. England eventually won by 44 runs, with the assistance of some brilliant catching.
Marcus Trescothick and Nick Knight started the innings brightly enough after what is becoming a habit for Nasser Hussain - winning the toss. They took the scoring rate above six an over. They were not alone, however, in getting set and then getting out.
Knight was first to go, falling lbw to Nuwan Zoysa after an enterprising innings of 20 from just 18 balls. It was a good ball that undid him, whereas Trescothick's shot was one that should only be seen in this form of the game, and then only when there are 300 on the board. Trying to drive straight, he did not hit straight through the line and the leading edge sent the ball over the covers where Kumar Sangakkara ran backwards to take a superb catch coming down over his head as he ran towards the boundary.
Hussain and Graham Thorpe shared and enterprising half-century partnership, Thorpe greeting Dilhara Fernando into the attack with some rasping off-side strokes. They appeared untroubled until Hussain was beaten by some movement away from the bat as he stretched forward for the ball to just clip the top of off stump and, three balls later, Thorpe dragged a very wide ball down onto his wicket.
It was left to Stewart and Ronnie Irani to try to rebuild the innings against, at this stage, a keen attack that was backed by some exciting fielding. The batsmen set about their task with some sensible batting that involved a minimum of risks but keeping the score ticking along. It is the essence of one-day cricket after the fall of early wickets.
Stewart reached his fifty from 67 balls with five fours, while Ronnie Irani, perhaps conscious of the criticism surrounding his selection, played with extreme caution in that he only reached the boundary once in his innings. He was a little unfortunate in that, having restrained his natural tendencies for so long, he eventually allowed himself to have a go at the bowling of Russel Arnold. He lifted a ball out towards deep mid-wicket where Mahela Jayawardene was able to take the catch and balance within the boundary. The batsman was visibly annoyed with himself for falling in that manner after such hard work.
The arrival of Flintoff galvanised Stewart into playing more expansive strokes while Flintoff himself was at his bullying best. He simply savaged the bowling as he brought up his fifty from 28 balls with five fours and two enormous sixes. It was hitting of the highest calibre and exactly what was required in the circumstances. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the bowlers whose job, it seemed, was merely to deliver up the balls for him to hit. Length and direction made no difference, apart from the sector of the ground - or crowd - into which the ball was clubbed.
Stewart made room to be bowled in the final over after an innings of immense value to his side. Paul Collingwood came in to strike what looks like a football formation - four, two, four from the three balls he faced and England should have been very satisfied with the eventual total of 293 for six.
The Sri Lankan reply was just beginning to take shape when the first wicket fell. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were sizing up the opening attack of Matthew Hoggard and James Kirtley when Hoggard bowled something recognisable as a half-volley to the Sri Lankan captain who rarely looks twice at such offerings before hammering them away. This time he hit it slightly uppishly but with great power through the covers for Hussain to take off and hold a quite stunning catch at full length.
Kaluwitharana was joined by Marvan Atapattu and this pair were going along nicely, unperturbed by the asking rate that they knew was well within the range of this batting line-up. However, when the total was nine runs short of the hundred, Atapattu drove Flintoff towards mid-off where Irani went low to his left to hold a very good two-handed catch.
England were ringing the changes with their attack in an effort to prevent the batsmen settling against a particular bowler. But Kaluwitharana went serenely to his fifty from 61 balls with a six and five fours, and found a willing partner in Jayawardene so that, by the halfway point in their innings, Sri Lanka had 134 for two whereas England's total at the same stage was 129 for four.
It was at this point that Collingwood came into the attack with immediate effect. Kaluwitharana flicked him towards mid-wicket where Thorpe dived to his right to hold yet another outstanding catch. In his next over, Collingwood uprooted Jayawardene's middle stump to claim the remarkable figures of two for four from his two overs.
Arnold was as sound as ever, providing stability for the stroke makers around him, until he was run out in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Sangakkara drove Hoggard sweetly back down the pitch. Hoggard deflected it onto the stumps with his finger tips and Arnold was unable to re-make his ground.
Flintoff came back into the attack to have Upul Chandana caught at mid-off and Naveed Nawaz taken off a mis-pull at mid-wicket and, with the required rate reaching a thoroughly unlikely figure, it was a question of going through the motions to the finish.
Kirtley took a closer interest than most by bowling Vaas and Zoysa in consecutive balls, and then saw Fernando drag the next ball from outside off stump past leg. Even in these times of ultra-professionalism, when it was still just mathematically possible for Sri Lanka to win, it should have been possible to spare a few close-catchers for the hat-trick ball.
There had been some doubt earlier whether the lights could be raised to their full height in a gusting wind, but it fell below the safety limit of 25 mph and so the lights could illuminate Sri Lanka denying Flintoff another wicket in the final over. They could not deny him the man-of-the-match award.