England claim series in Colombo

England beat Sri Lanka once again to claim a series victory which, after the opening game, could only have been described as optimistic in the extreme. After putting the early squeeze on the hosts with some outstanding seam-bowling in searing heat and humidity, and keeping enough control mid-innings to weather a large and in many ways hugely impressive stand between Kumar Sangakkara and Chamara Silva, their batsmen, led by Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, knocked-off the target with ease. The final game, also at R.Premadasa Stadium on Saturday, now becomes a dead-rubber.

The early omens had not been promising for England, after Paul Collingwood lost the toss in temperatures which would have been an unpleasant reminder of the true Sri Lanka following the pleasantly cool climes in Dambulla. James Anderson, still without a ODI wicket in Sri Lanka, drifted onto Upul Tharanga’s pads and conceded a boundary from the opening delivery, followed-up two balls later by a wide. That was about as good as it got for the home team: the rest of the over was impressive, and Ryan Sidebottom bowled six pinpoint off-stump deliveries to start his spell, an over he would rarely have bettered in his career. He got his due rewards the following over, as Tharanga pushed forwards, edged a perfect away-swinger, and was caught by Owais Shah at first-slip.

Anderson, who has struggled to find swing or a good line this series, located both in equal measure on this occasion. It was ironic, then, that probably the worst delivery of the spell – an overpitched slower delivery outside off – was the one that finally earned him his first wicket, as Sanath Jayasuriya attempted to smash the ball over the infield but could only find Kevin Pietersen at mid-off, who took the easy catch after a juggle. Neither bowler looked like straying still, and at the end of the first Powerplay the hosts had crawled to 20 for 2.

After Collingwood took the second lot of field-restrictions, Mahela Jayawardene appeared to decide this could not continue. Unfortunately for him, however, his attempt to up the pace resulted in instant calamity, giving Anderson the charge, receiving a short, wide delivery which he cut uppishly, but almost straight to Stuart Broad at third-man, who took a fine running catch. Anderson’s opening spell read 6-13-2 and Sidebottom’s 7-13-1. The long-haired Yorkshireman appeared fatigued in his 7th over and left the field immediately after it, but Stuart Broad too found a good line, and Paul Collingwood and Graeme Swann settled-in well once the Powerplays were finished.

With occasional exceptions – in the 16th, 19th, 25th, 30th and 32nd – the partnership between Sangakkara and Silva was not one of boundary-hitting. Swann hit good lengths once again, and Collingwood and later Ravinder Bopara found the slow pitch offering enough aid to their seamers and cutters to make scoring difficult. The outfield, drenched several times in recent weeks, required a fully timed stroke to even look like beating the deep fielders.

Just as it appeared Sangakkara and Silva might find a way to up the pace a little – both had completed their half-centuries and 17 came from the 38th and 39th overs – the sucker-punch struck again, as Silva cut uppishly at a short, wide delivery from Broad and found third-man, this time Bopara lurking there. The long-hop also did for Sangakkara in the 42nd, Broad again the beneficiary, the only difference being the lofted stroke went to deep-square-leg. Kaushal Lokuarachchi, replacing the injured Farveez Maharoof, had been unexpectedly promoted ahead of Tillakaratne Dilshan, and did little to justify the faith, managing 9 off 10 balls before being pinned plumb lbw by Collingwood in the 43rd. Dilshan did better, making a cameo 17 from 13 before swinging all around a full delivery from Anderson in the 47th. Sidebottom claimed the wicket of Vaas the following over, and though Jehan Mubarak survived two tough chances in the 49th he finally fell to Sidebottom in the last, castled as he walked way across his stumps. This clatter of wickets had been a result of the Sri Lankans’ inability to up the pace against mostly well-directed death-bowling. With just three boundaries in the final 10 overs, and 11 in the entire innings, they had set a target of just 212.

It was a target that never really looked like testing even England’s fragile top-order. Alastair Cook took advantage of the less seam-friendly conditions to bed in, and while Philip Mustard offered virtually an exact repeat of what he has managed so far this series – 19 off 18 this time, before being deceived by a slower-ball from Lasith Malinga and giving a return catch – Ian Bell looked better than he has at any point since the home summer. The runs did not flow at a phenomenal rate, but they did not need to, and Chaminda Vaas, though improving on his first 4 overs which cost 22, again failed to offer any great threat. Dilhara Fernando once again bowled an impressively tight line, but could not make the early breaks of earlier in the series.

It took Lokuarachchi’s introduction, after Jayawardene declined the third Powerplay, in the 16th to make something happen. Though he bowled too short too often, this eventually did for Bell, who top-edged an attempted pull to give Malinga an easy catch running back at mid-wicket. Shortly afterwards, rain unexpectedly halted play for a short time.

Bell’s dismissal, however, would be the last mistake England’s batsmen would make until the game was as good as won. Pietersen, who has often looked frenzied this series and indeed for much of the last 6 months in the shorter game, took his time early on, as he has always done when playing his best. Cook, once he had got over the new ball, could not have been better suited to chasing a target such as this one, and completed a hard-working half-century at the end of the 29th over. Lokuarachchi continued to bowl too short, and offered little more threat than the part-time fingerspin of Dilshan and Jayasuriya. In his final over Pietersen pillaged 16 to put and end to all reasonable doubt.

Fernando and Malinga grabbed some late consolation: first Cook chopped onto his stumps, after which he swung his bat at them in disappointment at failing to see the job through; Collingwood was pinned as stone-dead as anyone has ever been by the following delivery; and Owais Shah kept-out a succession of slow and quick yorkers, before the round-arm merchant finally slipped one through in the 46th. A leg-bye completed the victory, and the England players could celebrate their first victory in a bilateral series away from home since 199192, when those all-rounders of yore Derek Pringle and Dermot Reeve were at the crease to secure victory over a New Zealand side soon to carry much before them in their own World Cup. Much remains to convince about England’s one-day international cricket, but this is a triumph which will be savoured nonetheless.

Sri Lanka 211 for 9 (50 overs)
Kumar Sangakkara 69, Chamara Silva 67
James Anderson 10-33-3, Ryan Sidebottom 10-27-3

England 212 for 5 (46.5 overs)
Alastair Cook 80, Kevin Pietersen 63*

England won by 5 wickets

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