England players celebrate after defeating Sri Lanka by 10 run in their ICC Twenty20 2016 Cricket World Cup match at the Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium in New Delhi, India, Saturday, March 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Pic Courtesy: Cricinfo

 

By the time England were finally able to celebrate their passage to the semi-finals of the World Twenty20, off the penultimate ball of the match, it almost felt like a terrific anti-climax: the confirmation of something that had seemed apparent long before. England were in the ascendancy from start to finish, but that only barely tells the story. It was what happened in the middle that England’s players will still be feeling as they try to sleep after this match, hearts still pounding.

In what was effectively a quarter-final, a simple coast to victory quickly morphed into an emergency as Angelo Mathews, heroically batting on one leg after pulling a hamstring, took Sri Lanka perilously close to a sensational win. The crowd of over 11,000 certainly got their money’s worth, yet if England’s nose for drama cannot be faulted, then plenty else can.

They are a fiercely counter-intuitive team, England: at their best when the odds are stacked against them, at their worst when they are in the ascendancy. The expected trial by spin was effectively negotiated by posting a strong 171, and the game seemed won when Sri Lanka were reduced to 15 for four after three overs.

It was spin that let England down all right, but the kind they were bowling rather than the kind they were facing. After nine straight overs of pace, the introduction of Adil Rashid swung the game. His two overs disappeared for 31; Moeen Ali’s two overs went for 32. Both looked utterly bereft when the sixes started flying. The “complete performance” that the team had demanded of themselves is still awaited.

But England are through! And if not quite complete, it was certainly their best showing to date, gilded by a marvellous 66 off 37 balls by Jos Buttler that was not even one of his more violent knocks. He struggled for timing at first, although to put things into perspective even a “struggling” Buttler reached his half-century in 28 balls. But the denouement was familiar enough. Slowly, as he began picking the gaps, the fielders began to dissolve in his vision. Then, they began to dissolve in ours. Suddenly, the only objects in perfect focus were Buttler and the ball.

The foundations had been laid by Jason Roy (42) and Joe Root (25), who dropped anchor after Rangana Herath dismissed Alex Hales with his third ball. With spin to decipher from the very start, Root and Roy adopted different approaches. Root tried to get forward, smothering the spin in order to get a confident strike. Roy, meanwhile, was going to play his shots, and if the ball happened to be in the vicinity that was a bonus.

After they departed, Buttler and Morgan spent three overs playing themselves in. In the 16th over, as Mathews turned to Thisara Perera’s medium pace, Morgan made his move. He drove the first ball through cover for two, swept the second over square leg for four and swung the third over long-off for six, the veins bulging in his forearms.

The dam broken, Buttler took over to devastating effect. It became clear how badly Sri Lanka were missing Lasith Malinga at the death, as a succession of game but inexperienced pacemen were put to the sword. England scored 72 off the last 30 balls, most from Buttler’s swishing bat, although there were times when it more closely resembled a flying cape.

A total of 171 seemed more than enough when Sri Lanka’s top order folded like an Ordnance Survey map. David Willey had been struggling with a stomach bug in the days leading up to the game, but there were no apparent ill-effects as Tillakaratne Dilshan, perhaps the man most capable of igniting a successful chase, popped his third ball straight to deep square leg. Then, immediately after being hit for six over mid-wicket, Willey lured Siriwardana into an airy drive to cover. Willey’s salty, nautical send-off was the action of a man who had spent most of the previous 24 hours staring at his knees.

After three overs, Sri Lanka were four down. It would have taken a brave man to foresee victory from there, but Mathews and Chamara Kapugedara peered into the crystal ball for as long as they could. First they had to staunch the flow of wickets. Next they had to raise the rate. Then they needed one big over, which came off Rashid, who was hit for four huge straight sixes.

Suddenly Sri Lanka needed just 84 off eight, and England started ruing their missed half-chances: Morgan’s tough diving catch at cover, Root’s missed run out. Kapugedara holed out to deep square leg, but with the dangerous Perera in tow, Matthews carried on hitting. The return of pace and the wicket of Perera only partially arrested the slaughter: by the time Chris Jordan stepped up to bowl the penultimate over, 22 runs were required from 12.

That had been reduced to 17 from 10 when Dasun Chanaka smashed the ball towards extra cover, expecting four. The ball was still rising as Root flung himself high to his left, plucking a brilliant catch out of the air and very probably the match with it. Next, Jordan splattered Herath’s stumps with a perfect yorker. Jordan finished with four wickets and appears to be bubbling into form at just the right moment

With 15 required off the last over, Mathews refused singles, but nor could he find the boundary. Stokes’s yorkers were pinpoint, and just four came from the final over. Once again, England had turned up when it mattered, and disappeared when it did not.

And so to last four, where England will in all likelihood face a New Zealand side they have beaten in an 50-over series, a T20 international and a warm-up match in the last 12 months. No longer can they slip under the radar: they are serious contenders now, and will need to start playing like it. They will also be staying in Delhi, a ground where they have now enjoyed two frightening but vital victories. In more ways than one, England are just getting comfortable.

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