World Twenty20: Joe Root's form is key to England progress as Sri Lankan spin quartet looms large

In the short history of the World Twenty20 no team have become champions without losing a match. This is good news and bad news for England as they prepare to take on Sri Lanka.

It means their aspirations of winning the tournament for the second time, never that high on the scale of likelihood, remain intact. But it is also the case that any defeat now will cause their elimination. 

Any wriggle room that might have existed was vanquished by Chris Gayle’s blazing bat in England’s opening match last week. Nothing that has happened since, despite consecutive victories, suggests that England are sufficiently well equipped to repeat their unexpected but beautifully orchestrated success of 2010.

There are a couple of improbably rosy portents from that tournament. England managed to lose their opening match then, also to West Indies, almost mucked it up against an associate nation (Ireland instead of Afghanistan) but never put a foot wrong thereafter.

It is imperative that they learn quickly from their error-strewn performances so far. In one of their victories they were hopeless with the ball, in the other inept with the bat. To prevail in tournaments it is usual to get both right while also fielding like hotshots, something at which England are at last improving.

Their task today has been simplified by West Indies’ third victory last night, against South Africa. It means that victory will see England through to the semi-finals (and means that South Africa, the great chokers of the age, any age, have yet again performed below expectations in a one-day competition).

It is slightly perturbing that three games in, England do not appear to have alighted on their preferred starting XI. This is partly, they would claim, because of the need to be flexible in matching the team to the opposition and the conditions. It is also because there is so much inexperience and so little pedigree.

The bowling offers more reason for concern than the batting. Late in the day the selectors seem to have decided that since Liam Plunkett is here, he may as well play. He is their fastest bowler and was unfortunate to be overlooked for the initial squad.

Called up to replace Steve Finn, he was surplus to requirements before he was picked against Afghanistan. He immediately showed the firepower that had been absent. Finn was a huge loss.

But England have now shown their traditional weaknesses on slow pitches against slow bowling. Their decision making against Afghanistan was the sort of tacky repeat that, if it was the BBC, would bring calls for an end to the licence fee.

As in both the other formats, Test and one-day, the reliance on Joe Root is patent. The team’s top scorer in the opening two matches, Root again looked in splendid fettle on Wednesday until his run-out sparked mayhem precisely because the team know that when he is not there something vital has gone.

He recognises that they need something more and they need it quickly. “It’s about learning from the mistakes we made last time in case we are on a similar pitch and face a similar attack with a lot of spin,” he said yesterday. “Everyone has their own way of playing spin, there’s no right or wrong way, but for me it’s about trying to face as few dot balls as possible and trying to cash in with the boundaries when they are available.”

Sri Lanka, defending champions and with one defeat of their own already, sense England’s old weakness. They will probably field four spinners today, although they will seek an improvement in form from left-armer Rangana Herath.

Their wicketkeeper, Dinesh Chandimal, said: “We all know he is a world-class bowler and can do damage in the next two games. They are struggling against the spinners.”

Everyone knows that England struggle against the spinners. Sri Lanka have batting weaknesses of their own these days that England should exploit, but they themselves must still bat with greater skill and intelligence. Whichever way they go about it, the sense is that Root dare not fail.

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