There will be many twists and turns, highs and lows, for England this winter on the road to – in their wilder dreams – the World Cup final. Moeen Ali’s sublime century in Colombo in the first of seven one-day internationals against Sri Lanka was a definite high, accompanied by the low of losing the match by 25 runs.
His innings of 119 from 87 balls, the third-fastest ODI hundred for England, might also have offered the prospect of an early twist. It fully vindicated Moeen’s elevation to open the innings, partly because the side needed a sixth bowler, which in an ideal world would not be the way these decisions are made. But England’s one-day cricket has never resided in that joyous place.
But his promotion has meant the dropping of Alex Hales, who was the next big thing only six months ago and has barely been given a chance to fail. It begs the question of the position of the England captain, Alastair Cook, who begged it some more with an innings of 10, which included two reviews that successfully overturned lbw verdicts and an lbw verdict which did not merit a review. The plain truth is that Cook, with one 50 in his last 17 ODI innings, needs runs and fast. Either that or a perpetually winning team.
It was a mightily entertaining match, which England could, perhaps should, have won if they had not conceded too many runs in the first 10 overs with some filthy bowling, and in the final five overs of Sri Lanka’s innings when the slog was on, or if they had not shed too many wickets in a daunting chase. It showed starkly how many shortcomings still exist.
No side has pursued a winning target of above 300 in an ODI in Sri Lanka and a total of 317 for 6 was formidable, even in the modern era of free hitting, which is as exciting and trend-setting as free love was in the 1960s.
But the tourists, led serenely by Moeen, managed to stay within touching distance. He hit the first ball he received for four, took three fours off the fifth over and four off the sixth. Occasionally, he lived dangerously – one edge flew wide of slip, another went by the leg stump, he offered hard chances on 72 and 89 – but it was gloriously nonchalant and unfettered.
The timing was beautiful and it never looked as if he was playing a shot in anger, even when the five sixes were sailing over the boundary.
Cook never quite managed to establish a base when he was out to the first ball of spin, as it slid on low with the arm and caught him pinned on the crease.
After 15 overs, England were 107 for 1. They were almost cruising with Moeen finding an equally adept partner in Ian Bell. And then disaster. The middle order collapsed as three wickets fell in 17 balls, Bell dabbing at one outside off, Joe Root caught twixt and between thinking about driving, both to the excellent seam of Thisara Perera. Eoin Morgan reached for one from Ajantha Mendis and edged on to his stumps.
Moeen had to reconsider his options, but still the board ticked over. Jos Buttler looked threatening but was out softly.
In the 31st over, England were back in it at 203 for 5 with the returning Ravi Bopara providing an admirable foil. But facing the ball that was delivered after he had hit his final six, Moeen somehow contrived to prod a return catch to the leg spin of Jeevan Mendis, the only bowler all night to make him look uncomfortable. After that a tall order grew to the height of the Shard, despite Bopara taking it as deep as he could, and the wickets kept falling.
Perhaps England allowed Sri Lanka too many runs. England’s bowling at the start was wayward with both Harry Gurney and Chris Woakes falling much too short. In a sense England were always playing catch up afterwards and thus it was always just out of reach. “In the dressing room the guys are seeing it as one that got away,” said Cook. The game is hard enough for England without allowing that kind of carelessness.Reuse content