Cricket: World Cup - Stewart's perfect opening

Sri Lanka 204 England 207-2 England win by eight wickets
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND NEGOTIATED their first substantial World Cup hurdle when they cruised to an eight-wicket win over Sri Lanka at Lord's yesterday with 19 balls to spare. In a clinical performance that owed much to the batting of their captain Alec Stewart, whose 88 followed a destructive early spell of pace bowling from Alan Mullally, Sri Lanka were despatched with barely a hiccup, a rare event in one-day games involving Test playing countries. Victory, despite a certain inevitability for the 28,000 present, means that England can now afford to lose to India and South Africa and still qualify for the Super Six stage though, with rained-off games a possibility, such fine judgements are perhaps best avoided.

As opening matches go this was potentially a huge banana skin for the England captain and his team. Out of form with the bat, but in form with the toss, Stewart did not allow the situation to affect an obvious determination to find his touch at the wicket. Having swapped his usual opening partner, Nick Knight, for the in-form Nasser Hussain, the Surrey man matched earlier bold tactics in the field with some equally positive strokeplay.

Stewart has not been in the best of form since England's tour of Australia. Settling after some risky early strokes and the loss of Hussain, Stewart notched his half-century from 85 balls. It was his first one-day 50 for 19 innings, the previous one coming last August against yesterday's opponents. Providing the achievement is not a blip, England will gain enormously from the rejuvenating effects of Stewart's runs. In sustained campaigns, as this one must be, if England are to feature in the final stages, a focused and happy captain is essential to progress.

Once Hussain had gone, trying to launch a Muttiah Muralitharan delivery into a sparsely populated Lord's pavilion, Stewart was happy to cede control to Graeme Hick. His second six of the match and an earlier one off Sanath Jayasuriya, picked up with ease over square leg, confimed the Worcestershire man is in good form.

World Cups invariably throw up fads and fashions and this tournament will surely be no different. For the moment, though, old-fashioned virtues will suffice, and Mullally showed there is still room in the game for bowlers who pursue line and length. The left-arm paceman took 4 for 37, a performance that prevented Sri Lanka's hit men from plying their usual intimidating trade.

Asked to bat first, Sri Lanka struggled to form the kind of meaningful partnerships needed to post demanding totals. Only a stand of 84 between the wicketkeeper Romesh Kaluwitharana and his evergreen skipper Arjuna Ranatunga prevented the spectacle from becoming as limp as the opening ceremony.

A tall, rangy bowler, Mullally used his height to gain plenty of awkward bounce from a good length, a combination that found the opposition's technique and temperament wanting. Operating as first change from the Pavilion End, he extracted far more from the pitch than Darren Gough or Ian Austin, the pair entrusted the new ball. Indeed, Austin looked nervous and the decision to open with him was a strange one, particularly with Jayasuriya's penchant for everything medium, including his steaks. More likely is that neither Mullally nor Gough fancied the right to left slope of the Nursery End.

Mindful of the potential dangers of pinch-hitting on English pitches at this time of year, Sri Lanka opted for a kind of halfway house by partnering Jayasuriya with the more sedate and orthodox Roshan Mahanama. As it was, Mahanama struck out first with a brace of boundaries off Austin. If it was out of character, an attempt to repeat the feat with a slog off Mullally just meant it was over and out. Graeme Hick safely pouched the skied slog running back from second slip.

Soon after, Hick spilled what might have been a costly chance, when he got fingertips to an edge from Jayasuriya off Gough. It was a difficult chance and one that did not prove overly costly when Jayasuriya, just 14 runs to the good, re-presented the chance after edging Mullally. With Marvan Atapattu having already departed, and Hashan Tillekeratne unluckily tickling Mark Ealham's opening delivery for a leg-side catch, Sri Lanka were 63 for 4.

Determined to be bold, something not always accredited to Stewart, the England captain kept a close attacking field in place for much of the first 30 overs, including a short-leg for Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva.

The positions did not bear fruit themselves, but De Silva's dismissal for a duck, failing to get on top of another bouncy delivery from Mullally, was typical of a mind distracted by a field set to scavenge on any mistakes.

It was a big wicket and Mullally, as well as the catcher, Thorpe, appeared suitably chuffed. But, unfazed by their potentially abject position, Kaluwitharana barely paused for thought before playing his shots.

Perhaps Sri Lankans read a lot of comics. If they do not, they clearly believe in glory, and the diminutive keeper never took a backward step in his 52-ball half century. Although less explosive, Ranatunga also played his part, contributing 32, including a six and a four in successive balls off Hick, as Stewart tried to take the pace off.

When both fell within six runs of each other, Sri Lanka looked doomed to be bowled out well short of 200. Instead, sensible batting by the tail, and a short-lived thrash by Muralitharan, took them past 200. With rain, however, gone for the day, England gambolled home.

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