World Cup 2019: Why the tournament needed the England-Sri Lanka classic
The gulf between the best and the rest was slowly beginning to emerge, and that augured badly for a long-winding, meandering tournament. The best, a.k.a. India, Australia, New Zealand and, hosts and favorites England, already marked out a favorites to progress to the coveted semifinals of the World Cup 2019, were taking confident steps towards that stage while the others were falling haplessly by the wayside.
This, despite a spirited Bangladesh fighting hard and a talented West indies nearly upsetting the Australian applecart. However, before Sri Lanka took on England at Headingley on Friday, the progress of the big four to the mini-knockout stage seemed almost inexorable.
Disappointing big guns
South Africa, who could have been the primary challengers to the four, have been woeful in the tournament. Pakistan came good once in a thriller against England before returning to losing ways. Sri Lanka had perhaps the least buzz going for them among all the veteran teams. The way they capitulated against Australia in a 300-plus chase after a promising start encapsulated their journey in the tournament so far.
A World Cup classic
If there is one match that can be called a classic in a big-tournament setting, it was yesterday's encounter. The sticky wicket and difficult batting conditions added to the drama in a match where England were overwhelming favorites.
Sri Lanka's cause wasn't helped by being reduced to 4/2 very early on, and the result began seeming like a foregone conclusion with three slips closing in and Jofra Archer and Mark Wood breathing fire. Then came the counter attack.
First Avishka Fernando played an astonishingly fluent knock against the grain to settle things. And then veteran Angelo Mathews, so often the scapegoat in the team, showed his indomitable temperament to anchor the total to respectability with an unbeaten 85.
However, as the commentators pointed out, 232 was a still a below par score with England batting so deep and having so many match-winners in their ranks. They had not reckoned with a vintage Lasith Malinga returning to his lethal best.
He might have lost a yard of pace with age, but his guile more than made up for it in a must-win game for his country. The slingy action threw the ball in at a dangerous line and length, dead straight and seaming, often at a pretty fast pace, often pitching in the yorker length.
Two of his victims were lbw, and that tells you the story. The ball that swung from a good length to catch the edge of James Vince's bat, and ended up in the hands of first slip, was a beauty reminiscent of the delivery he bowled in the 2011 final to dismiss Sachin Tendulkar.
His four victims included Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and Jos Buttler - the who's-who of England batting.
Amid rising tension Ben Stokes played a wonderfully aggressive knock of 82, but the crafty spin of Dhananjaya de Silva wiped out the rest of England's vaunted middle-order to help Sri Lanka record a famous win.
The see-saw battle, the fever pitch of excitement and the upset at the end were everything that made it a great game. In the end, Sri Lanka were sharper, hungrier and craftier in the field and with the ball and deserved the win.
However, the game also lights up the Cup and evokes the prospect of an exciting last phase of league action.
Things getting spicy
Favorites England have now suffered two defeats and suddenly find themselves in a sticky spot in their quest for the semis. They face the other big three, that is Australia, India and the Kiwis, in their last three games and need at least two victories to seal that coveted last-four spot.
England have not beaten these teams in a World Cup since 1992! Talk about pressure in front of their own fans.
From the tournament's perspective, Sri Lanka's win brightens the prospect of a team outside the quartet making it to the semi-finals, including that of the Lions themselves. And that is exactly what the tournament required.
Also read – Biggest world cup win