As England eased past Sri Lanka in their opening T20 encounter on Wednesday night they seemed to have an embarrassment of riches, but there was a time as the teams met again 24 hours later that they flirted with just plain embarrassment. Having restricted Sri Lanka to the meagre total of 111 they turned a procession into a problem with the loss of four early wickets, but a partnership of 53 between Sam Billings and Liam Livingstone settled their nerves and, after their target was trimmed to 103 because of a brief rain delay, they won by five wickets to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
Livingstone has hit more explosive innings than his 26-ball 29 here, but it was tailored perfectly to the situation his team was in. The England captain, Eoin Morgan, complained afterwards that “every time we seemed to take a risk we lost a wicket” but Livingstone played conservatively until, with the die apparently cast, he ramped Dushmantha Chameera for six, his only boundary. “With Sam we tried to hit the fielders and run as hard as we could, and knock the runs off that way,” he said. “The rain actually helped the pitch a lot. It wasn’t easy going early on and it made the ball skid on more.”
The game had started, as had the first, with Sri Lanka winning the toss, choosing to bat and making a pretty poor fist of it. The start of their innings here was bad enough to be historic.
As it happens both England and Sri Lanka had played precisely 133 Twenty20 internationals before this one. Not once had England stopped their opponents from scoring a single boundary in the powerplay, and neither had Sri Lanka failed to score one. Indeed it had happened only 15 times in 2,336 officially-sanctioned T20 matches, most recently when the Czech Republic played Austria in the Central Europe Cup in May. But Sri Lanka took until the fourth ball of the eighth over, the 46th of their innings, to hit a four, an achievement greeted with massive cheers of varying levels of irony by all present.
After six overs Sri Lanka were 26 for two, a miserable tally, and with the game only minutes old the remainder of their evening was destined to be a struggle. After 10 overs they were 47 for two, and after 19 they were 97 for seven. It was only thanks to Isuru Udana’s success in Chris Jordan’s final over that they posted a total that was at all respectable, and even then it was the lowest ever scored against England when all 20 overs have been bowled.
It was not terribly hard for England’s bowlers to look good, but most were exceptional. David Willey, playing for the first time in two years after replacing Chris Woakes in one of two changes for England (Jos Buttler was also replaced by Billings after reporting a mild calf strain) was excellent at the start and end of the innings.
But the combination of Mark Wood and Adil Rashid in the middle overs, searing pace from one end and guile from the other, was of the highest class. Between them they took four wickets, Wood’s two coming in as many deliveries during his third over with Wanindu Hasaranga only just surviving the hat-trick ball, completing his shot with the ball already long gone.
Having badly failed with the bat, Sri Lanka’s only chance of victory was to bowl with irresistible venom from the off and without let-up. They certainly managed the first of those tasks: Chameera’s opening over was terrific, costing just a single run, and then Binura Fernando ran in from the Taff End and improved on it. The 6ft 6in seamer was playing his first match since August 2015 but needed no time to acclimatise and his second ball back was a wonder, straightening to bowl Jonny Bairstow through the gate. When Chameera trapped Dawid Malan lbw in the following over England were eight for two, and the most unlikely of victories was on.
By the end of their own powerplay England were 30 for three, Morgan having cut straight to the Hasaranga at backward point, and the teams appeared to be competing primarily for batting ignominy. Three balls later Jason Roy clobbered Hasaranga straight to Dasun Shanaka at long-on, sparking wild celebrations among a fielding side that had unexpectedly fought their way back into the game.
With so few risks being rewarded, Billings and Livingstone simply stopped taking them. They scored mainly in ones and twos, keeping their team’s total just a shade over the DLS target as rain started to fall. England were 69 for four when the umpires halted play, and seemed to relax once they returned. Billings did not quite make it to the conclusion, chopping a Hasaranga delivery into his stumps, but there was no way back for Sri Lanka, and a six from Sam Curran ended it.