England lost a match but found a cricketer last night. This might seem like picking up a fiver after having a tenner stolen but in the circumstances here at the Premadasa Stadium it was a perfectly acceptable exchange.
It was important to launch the search for positives after an overwhelming eight-wicket defeat by India which eliminated them from the Champions Trophy. Fortunately, it did not require a long trawl since Ian Blackwell, playing his second one-day international, played an innings of immense vibrancy and power in a stirling England recovery.
Unfortunately, his endeavours were wholly eclipsed. India, pursuing a target that was more than they would have liked, set off at a high gallop which they sustained. There were 10.3 overs left when they past England's total of 269. Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly both scored centuries. Some of Sehwag's shot selection was outrageous and while Ganguly was electrifyingly quick, he was prosaic by comparison.
At the break between innings, England must have been pretty pleased with themselves. Not smug or complacent, but reflecting both on a job well done and also on the telling statistic that no side had made more than 243 to win a match batting second at the Premadasa. So they had a chance.
To create it, they had batted with wit and intelligence following a dreadful start. After 10 overs, England were 23 for 2 with Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain both out. Since this pair have made a large bulk of the team's runs lately, it augured badly.
But Ronnie Irani defied his critics once more (surely they will soon be an extinct breed) by taking the attack to India. Owais Shah, too, played with some verve. It seemed that the innings would revolve around the opener, Nick Knight, in the role of anchor man. Knight, however, made a dreadful mistake straight after reaching a painstaking 50 by underclubbing to long-arm and England were in trouble again at 127 for 4. Blackwell propelled them on. He wields the bat as a club rather than a rapier and he will not be one of the elegant left-handers of his generation.
His method is direct and he made 82 from 68 balls. Three sixes complemented the six fours. He was run out going for a second and was tired out as well. His efforts dehydrated him and he was off the field for the start of the rampant reply.
Blackwell is a burly lad and that he is also left-handed, of bucolic countenance and plays for Somerset evokes comparison with Trescothick. But if he is the new Trescothick, then Sehwag has long been the new Tendulkar. What an exhibition he mounted. The Indian batsmen were as effective in the opening overs as their opening bowlers had been but far more spectacular.
Hussain, England's captain, was aware that the early stages were crucial. He could do nothing to stop Sehwag and Ganguly was happy at that stage to be an innocent bystander.
The new Tendulkar simply flayed England's attack. He hoisted it to third man, he stepped across his stumps to whip it to leg, he made room to smash through the covers. He was irrepressible.
Hussain said: "We've got to improve when sides are coming at us like that while they are batting as Australia and many other sides will do in the next six months." He was not kidding. England's finest, Andrew Caddick and Matthew Hoggard, who had looked so threatening against Zimbabwe only days earlier, were impotent.
It seemed as though Sehwag and Ganguly might inflict a 10-wicket defeat which would have been only England's second in one-day cricket. But Blackwell intervened by somehow inducing Sehwag to offer a return catch off his apparently timid left-arm spin. It was his first international wicket: there will not be many better. Sehwag's 126 required only 109 balls. He offered one chance when he was three, edging Caddick wide to Knight's right at second slip. The fielder made the ground, clasped his hands round the ball but could not hold on. Caddick never got near the edge of the bat again.
Sehwag's exit, followed soon after by the early departure of VVS Laxman, who was rather sloppily run out, brought in the great Sachin, which must have cheered English hearts. It was the signal for Ganguly to raise the tempo. He did pretty much as he liked. It was brutal one-day batting and so hard did India's captain hit the throttle that his score of 117 not out came from 109 balls.
"Sometimes you have to give credit where it is due and they batted brilliantly today," Hussain said. "I knew we could make a game of it if we got the openers in the first 15 overs. But that didn't happen. It's about many things, character variations, thinking on your feet."
It was the 11th one-day match between the teams this year and ultimately the most one-sided. Of the one-day matches played on the ground, 82 per cent have been won by the side batting first. It was probably not the time to mention it to Hussain and his men.
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