Jos Buttler helped England over the line at last to kick-start their World Cup winter with an overdue win in the third one-day international against Sri Lanka.
In a match too close to call almost until the last, and which finished close to midnight local time, Buttler (55no) and Yorkshire’s Joe Root saved the day with an unbroken stand of 84 after a mid-innings blip in pursuit of a Duckworth-Lewis target of 236 in 35 overs.
Alastair Cook’s team therefore still have a shot at his first series victory in six attempts, having sealed the deal by five wickets with eight balls to spare at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium – and reduced the overall deficit to 2-1 with four to play.
The match turned on the 32nd over of England’s innings, Dhammika Prasad conceding 21 runs – after overstepping for a no-ball with the delivery he initially thought had done for Root, ‘caught’ at cover, on 40.
Kumar Sangakkara (63), Lahiru Thirimanne (62no) and captain Angelo Mathews earlier helped Sri Lanka recover from their own awkward start on the way to 242-8, having chosen to bat first before a three-and-a-half-hour rain interruption.
Moeen Ali (58) and Cook gave England impetus in reply after the D/L recalculation with a highly-encouraging opening stand of 84 in less than 12 overs.
Moeen hit four sixes and two fours in his 29-ball 50, but the captain fell to an outside-edge behind, pushing forward at Prasad, and Alex Hales, preferred to bat at three in place of the dropped Ian Bell, then failed to respond to Moeen’s call for a single wide of mid on.
It was the opener who paid the price, almost up at the bowler’s end before realising he was running on his own and unable to regain his ground as Rangana Herath’s throw finally came in.
Hales was unable to take advantage of a moment of good fortune soon afterwards.
He had added only a hooked six off Mathews after escaping a simple chance at mid-wicket, spilled by Thirimanne, when he holed out at mid on in the same eventful over.
After Ravi Bopara was brilliantly caught-behind by Sangakkara, anticipating his sweep at Herath, England had suddenly found trouble, all the more so when Eoin Morgan’s bad run continued with a mis-hook at Mathews, and three wickets had fallen for eight runs.
But Root stayed the course, with a little luck and plenty of skill, while Buttler upped the ante with nine fours in his 35-ball 50.
England’s bowlers had kept taking wickets just when they needed them, notably Mathews’s to end his stand of 87 with Sangakkara and then the latter at the start of Sri Lanka’s powerplay.
There was an emotional backdrop to this fixture, on the day of Phillip Hughes’s funeral, just as for the opening two matches in the series after the Australia Test batsman suffered a fatal blow when he was hit by a bouncer in the Sheffield Shield last week.
But as on those previous occasions, the considered decision was that play should go on here.
When it did, Chris Woakes (3-41) made a breakthrough in the second over, before the players left the field with clouds casting semi-darkness and threatening heavy rain.
It was too late for Kusal Perera, already dismissed for a duck when he cut aerially to point.
Sri Lanka were 6-1, and on the resumption under lights England soon nipped out two more wickets.
Steven Finn rolled one back into the right-hander off the seam to bring Tillakaratne Dilshan’s faulty readjustment and edge behind off the back foot.
Then Thilina Kandamby’s first ODI innings in more than three years lasted just two balls, the second compliantly guided to slip off Woakes to register the second duck in Sri Lanka’s top four.
But Sangakkara, especially, and Mathews played very well as the England attack occasionally lost discipline on a good pitch.
When it seemed the hosts were getting away, Mathews got himself out, advancing to Chris Jordan and edging a wild swing behind.
Sangakkara passed his half-century in 53 balls but gloved a pull to mid on, having just hit Jordan for 10 off the first three balls of the 26th over.
Even so the hosts still had the firepower, thanks to Thirimanne’s 39-ball 50 and then two successive sixes off Root in tailender Prasad’s 21 off eight balls, to bag 102 in the last 10 overs.
Ultimately, even that proved insufficient.
Cook said: “It’s great to get over the line. We probably made it harder than we should have, we had a great start with Mo (Moeen Ali) and we were cruising. But it was a great knock by ‘Jose’ (Buttler) and Rooty (Joe Root) to get us over the line.”