England stand-in captain Eoin Morgan admitted his team had one eye on the World Cup when they chose just one specialist spinner for the six-wicket defeat to Sri Lanka in Colombo.
The tourists fell slightly short with the bat too, on a slow pitch, but might have had better prospects of defending 265 all out had James Tredwell been involved instead of an extra seamer.
Sri Lanka deployed four slow bowlers in all – three of whom accounted for nine wickets between them.
They then had Kumar Sangakkara (86) and Angelo Mathews (51 not out) to thank for getting them over the line to go 3-1 up with only two balls but six wickets to spare in the fourth of seven ODIs, a match in which home vice-captain Lahiru Thirimanne stressed that “two spinners were a must”.
Morgan, deputising for the suspended Alastair Cook, could be heartened by the performance of James Taylor, who made 90 at No 3 in his first ODI in 15 months, and his own 62 to help salvage a competitive total.
He did not dispute that England could easily have chosen a different team, but explained that Cook and coach Peter Moores are trying to make sure they give a chance to all those who could be named in their World Cup plans later this month.
“Sri Lanka would have a lot more spinners (than us, even) on a green wicket,” he said.
“But I do agree we did need another spinner.
“Again, we made the decision we were going to give guys a chance – as we did with James Taylor – to come out today and prove themselves, on what we knew was going to be a slower wicket than we’ve played on.”
Morgan had a say in selection on this occasion.
“I had input on the team ... (but) no, I can see the bigger picture as to why we went down the other route,” he said.
“Ben (Stokes), in particular, has been in and out of the side (and) hasn’t really had a run in a while.
“To do that today gives the selectors, and Alastair and Peter, a bit more idea what Ben’s about and what sort of role he could play in the side.
“We have to pick a squad before Christmas – and if you take guys away on tour, you have to give them a chance. Otherwise, there’s no point in bringing them.”
Taylor helped England to 170-3, after Morgan won the toss, only for the innings to fall away.
“We were probably about 20 to 25 short,” said Morgan.
“We assessed conditions in the first 25 (overs), and the guys who batted – James Taylor in particular – said it was getting harder and harder (to score) as the ball got older.
“We still aimed to get 280 to 290. I suppose we were good in patches, but the latter half of our innings wasn’t good enough ... so that’s disappointing.”
Sri Lanka’s reply owed much to the evergreen Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
“When Mahela and Sanga got going and started to make it look easy, that’s when I started to think ‘How are we going to get a wicket?’” added Morgan.
“But I thought the guys, the seamers especially, did outstandingly well to get them that deep in the innings.
“It was a (really) slow wicket, so the higher risk you took the harder it was ... but they just managed it.”
Thirimanne was unbeaten at the end, alongside Mathews, in a stand of 53.
He said: “The main thing in our mind was that the batsmen had to stay there.
“Angelo was batting nicely, so I just had to rotate the strike – and we knew a run-a-ball would do it.”
For England, the consolations were Taylor – and Morgan’s own return to form.
“He was outstanding,” the stand-in captain said of the top-scoring Taylor.
“To come in after a really long break and play in the manner he did was brilliant.
“He certainly plays it his own way, and he didn’t lack any confidence today.
“It was great to see. Batting at No 3 is quite a big thing, setting up an innings, and he did it magnificently well.”
On his own much-improved performance, Morgan added: “From today, I’ve gained a lot of confidence.
“I needed time at the wicket. I spent time there, and was able to cash in at the end.”
England now head to Kandy today knowing they must win all three remaining matches to take the series.