It was an anxiety-riddled chase in the final match in Group 1, despite a target of 142 looking well within reach after openers Jos Buttler and Alex Hales posted 75 for the first wicket inside eight overs. But a series of unforced errors saw six wickets fall in the space of 65 deliveries, for the addition of just 54. The trio of Wanindu Hasaranga, Dhananjaya de Silva and Lahiru Kumara split those dismissals evenly between them and for a moment an upset looked well and truly on the cards.
It was a far closer than it should have been, England having fought back strongly to limit Sri Lanka to a modest total after opener Pathum Nissanka (67 off 45) got them off to a flyer. For Australia, now officially done as defending champions, they will wonder what might have been having relinquished the opportunity to surpass England’s net run rate with their own modest win over Afghanistan on Friday.
But for Nissanka’s blitz, which had Sri Lanka 65 for 1 after seven overs, there was little around him as England’s collective attack served up cutters and slower deliveries that were responding well to a worn surface at the SCG. Adil Rashid’s 1 for 16 from his four overs led the retort, though Mark Wood collected the more eye-catching figures of 3 for 26, two of them coming in the 20th over, which also featured a run out, as Sri Lanka crept to 141 for 8 – the lowest total posted first at this ground in the competition. England also became the first to win at the SCG when chasing.
Buttler’s charges now head to Adelaide for their semi-final. They will play whoever finishes first in Group 2, which culminates on Sunday.
Make no mistake, there was always going to be a space for Stokes, even if the pre-tournament conversations over whether he is in England’s best T20 team were merited. In many ways, it is his bowling that has been as close to a revelation as you can get for a multifaceted cricketer admired the world over, and yet again he opened up, finishing with 1 for 24 from three overs. Batting, however, was where the real question remained and it took until England were in the doldrums in Sydney to truly appreciate how valuable he is.
Yes, his best spot is as an opener, but the way he gauged the conditions around him – both the tangible challenge of the pitch and intangible stress of having to be the saviour once more – was a reminder of his unparalleled worth to England. He only hit two fours, picking up the majority of his runs with his feet, as that problematic left knee worked more overtime. He is still yet to register a fifty in T20Is, and this score was only the third time he has passed 40 in 35 innings, not that he or his team-mates will care.
If Malan’s injury is as feared, a batting replacement will have to be drafted in, and there is no guarantee Stokes will reprise his first-drop role in the semi-final. Whatever position he comes in at, there can be no doubt England’s best XI is one with him in it.
Rashid dulls with class
Four games played, 16 overs bowled and, finally, a wicket. It has been a peculiar tournament for Rashid, one which has seen the legspinner operate as a dampener rather than a disruptor. Even though the former is a role of immense value in this format, the fear was the shoulder injury that has limited his usual zip off the pitch was cutting into his incisiveness. Of course, the reality may be closer to the fact batters are more watchful against him, willing to play his overs out before making hay at the other end.
Here, he wedded both sides: stopping Sri Lanka in their tracks – he did not concede a boundary in his four overs – and dismissing Nissanka. Had he failed at either task, things would have ended very differently. As it happens, he now has 90 T20I wickets – the joint most for an Englishman, level with Chris Jordan.
Change of pace
In a tournament where those topping the speed gun have stolen the headlines, here was a fixture that rewarded shifting down a few gears. The spinners were always likely to shine on this used pitch, but the quicks got in on the act with variations of their own. England’s attack sussed this halfway through and by the halfway stage, pace-off deliveries were going at 4.87 runs per over, while pace-on checked in at 8.46. The most notable element of this in the second innings came in the 18th over, when Sri Lanka’s own speedster Lahiru Kumara bowled six balls – almost entirely reserved and into the pitch – that yielded just two runs and the wicket of Sam Curran, leaving England needing over a run a ball for the last two overs.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo