Sri Lanka vs England: Alastair Cook banned but guaranteed to walk straight back to the top

Morgan to stand in on Sunday after England captain hit for slow over rate yet Moores not tempted by long-term chang

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The Independent Online

England are back in the series. This is still a galaxy or two away from the World Cup being in the bag but the journey to the White House has occasionally started in log cabins.

For these hitherto hapless tourists, their launch pad to the final in Melbourne on  29 March may be the jungle in the south-east corner of the tear-drop island. Not a log cabin exactly but an unlikely cradle.

The portents are not yet auspicious. In winning by five wickets in Hambantota on Wednesday night, England have made it 2-1 to Sri Lanka with four matches to play, but they have yet to alight on their most effective batting order, much of their bowling is still all over the shop and they simply do not know their preferred XI, except that the captain is and will definitely remain Alastair Cook.

England must endeavour to square the series back in Colombo on Sunday without Cook, who has been banned for a match because of England’s laggardly over rate on Wednesday, their second offence in a year. It means that England will start with yet another opening pair, probably Alex Hales and Moeen Ali, and that Eoin  Morgan, himself perilously short of runs, will be elevated to the captaincy.

Peter Moores, their head coach and chief architect, was relieved rather than jubilant to be talking today about victory which, lest we forget, is only England’s fifth in  17 matches against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. Three of the others came in one remarkable series seven years ago and the fourth was when the hosts were barely out of international cricket nappies.

A sixth in 18 would be fairly big potatoes even at this stage of the winter and a significant opening partnership in which the usual captain was playing no part would perhaps  concentrate minds. But anybody who supposes that Cook’s absence may put his place under threat is wrong.

Moeen Ali has been a success at the top of the order

Moores said the opener is guaranteed to return for the fifth match and asked if he had ever once thought that Cook was the wrong man to lead the England one-day side said simply: “No.” Thinking about it, he added: “Do you want more?” But the point was made. Cook is here until the World Cup when, win or lose, the gut feeling is that he will withdraw to prolong his Test career, his enthusiasm and his sanity.

Scepticism about Cook’s status now amounts to mere windbaggery. He is here to stay and he will open the batting with Moeen, a revelation who has put many in mind of a previous languid left-hander. Over breakfast in Kalu’s Hideaway yesterday morning, a small, friendly hotel which, like the Hambantota ground, abuts the jungle, a middle-aged English couple, thrilled about the victory, waxed  lyrical about Moeen and David Gower.

Moores defended the decision to pick Hales, a natural-born attacking opener, in the No 3 position in Hambantota in place of Ian Bell, who may find his way back blocked. He cannot have thought this a viable proposition when the party left England.

Hales last batted at three for Nottinghamshire in 2009 and, though he scored two of his seven one-day hundreds there, he has been cast since as a blazing opener charged with finding top gear as soon as the occasion demands.

This is one example of  England having to think on their feet, or make it up as they go along. But it is important to note in Moores’ defence that everyone thought he was crazy when he decided that Gary Ballance, completely untried, should bat at three in the Test side last summer. Three hundreds and three fifies later they did not think he was unhinged any longer.

Moores said: “We make no bones about it, we’re trying to look at players and create chances for people. You don’t always know who’s going to take them. But it’s the opportunities we want because we’re still trying to identify our best team. One of the bonuses of winning is looking at the good and bad is much easier.”

On that basis, it is time now to give James Taylor a game or two. He has done  little wrong because he has had little chance to do anything wrong.

With Cook out, some more reshuffling will take place. England left out Bell, James Tredwell and Harry Gurney from the previous match. If it did not seem wholly logical, it was justified by the result.

Moores said: “We know what we’ve got with them but we want to find what we’ve got with other cricketers on the park and off the park. We have made some pretty bold decisions over the course of the last six months, Gary Ballance at three in the Test side, Mo shoved up to open. Some work, some don’t, Mo has started really well.”

He is certain that Morgan remains a key part of England’s future, such is his ability to take games away from opponents, though since the beginning of the last  English season his average in 12 innings is 17.17 at a strike rate to match of 64.58. “The  captaincy might be a healthy distraction,” said Moores. But if it proved to be so, might that not create a dilemma about recalling Cook? No, it would not.

Among other things, England are trying to find the balance between attacking and defending, accumulation and aggression, without really knowing what it is. One timely victory has offered the hope that soon they might have a clue.