England stutter at Headingley to leave semi-final door open to rivals

LET’S BE honest, this has not been a great World Cup so far.

England's Ben Stokes after his side are defeated by Sri Lanka at Headingley. Picture: Tim Goode/PA

Unless, that is, one is a connoisseur of one-sided games, bad weather and a group stage in which the semi-finalists have seemed obvious for days.

Why, one has only to consider the hyperbole which attended New Zealand’s victory against South Africa at Edgbaston the other day to know that this is the case.

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Granted, it was a fine effort by honorary Yorkshireman Kane Williamson to lead his side home by four wickets with three balls to spare with a magnificent hundred, but although spectators watched an exciting finish, to hear some pundits talk afterwards, you would think that those spectators had just witnessed the climax to the 2005 Edgbaston Ashes Test.

SWEET TASTE OF VICTORY: Sri Lanka players celebrate winning by 20 runs at Headingley. Picture: Simon Cooper/PA

The World Cup has certainly been more soporific than spectacular, but as Headingley belatedly joined the party, staging the first of four fixtures in the space of 16 days, this was one of the more gripping encounters, England falling to a 20-run defeat that means that the semi-final line-up is, perhaps, not set in stone.

After winning the toss, Sri Lanka scored 232-9 from their 50 overs, a run-rate so incongruous by modern standards that it was akin to finding a dinosaur bone in the Carnegie Pavilion.

Between the 10th and 40th overs, the Sri Lankans found the boundary only six times, as though the rope was obscured by thick fog.

But on a day when spectators basked in glorious sunshine, with the new stand at the rugby ground end looking resplendent, the pace of scoring was never explosive as England were dismissed for 212 from 47 overs in reply, Ben Stokes’s unbeaten 82 nothing more than an act of heroic failure.

England's Joe Root (centre) bhit 57 from 89 balls, but England lost by 20 runs. Picture: Simon Cooper/PA

England, who would have batted had they won the toss, made a fine start to the game – but only after the Sri Lankan national anthem finally ended.

The music seemed to go on for longer than some of the Sri Lankan players’ names (Narangoda Liyanaarachchilage Thisara Chirantha Perera, for instance), forming part of the wealth of pre-match preliminaries.

But the noisy Sri Lankan contingent were quietened when captain Dimuth Karunaratne was caught behind off Jofra Archer from the final delivery of the second over, and then Kusal Perera taken at third man off Chris Woakes from the second delivery of the following over, leaving Sri Lanka 3-2.

One sensed that England would rip through Sri Lanka’s batting, only for Avishka Fernando – a 21-year-old brought in as one of two changes to the side that had lost to Australia last time out – to have other ideas.

Out of nothing, Fernando launched a memorably ferocious assault on Archer.

The pace bowler was pulled into the top tier of the North-East Stand and then pulled over the scoreboard towards the Cardigan Road.

Fernando also thrashed Archer on the up through cover and pulled him for another boundary, England’s new pace ace briefly reduced to mortal.

Fernando was within one run of his fifty when he was third out at 62, upper-cutting Mark Wood to third man, where Adil Rashid judged the catch.

Rashid then intervened with the ball to have a sweeping Kusal Mendis caught by a diving Eoin Morgan at mid-wicket for 46 from 68, then Jeevan Mendis caught-and-bowled.

Between them, Rashid and Moeen Ali conceded 85 runs from 20 overs as Sri Lanka struggled to get them away.

Wickets continued to fall as Dhananjaya de Silva was brilliantly caught by a leaping Joe Root at mid-on off Archer; Thisara Perera held by Rashid at third-man after slashing at Archer; Isuru Udana caught by Root at mid-on off Wood, and Lasith Malinga yorked by Wood.

Sri Lanka were grateful for an unbeaten 85 from Angelo Mathews, compiled from 115 balls with five fours and a six, to hoist them to a competitive score.

England’s reply began poorly when Jonny Bairstow was lbw to Malinga for a golden duck to the second delivery of the innings, DRS confirming umpire’s call on impact with the leg stump.

Bairstow was the fifth Yorkshireman to be out first ball in an international at Headingley after Bill Bowes, Brian Close, Darren Gough (twice) and Gary Ballance, and it was the second time that he had been dismissed first ball in this competition after the opening game against South Africa at the Oval.

James Vince flattered to deceive before edging Malinga to slip, and Morgan drove a full toss back to Udana, leaving England 73-3.

Root continued his fine form with 57 from 89 balls with three fours before being strangled down the leg-side by Malinga, who claimed his fourth victim when Jos Buttler was trapped in front.

At 170-5 in the 39th over, England still seemed on course only for Moeen to hole out on the straight boundary, closely followed by the departure of Woakes and Rashid, both caught behind.

Archer picked out long-on and the game ended when Wood was caught behind, leaving Stokes stranded at the end of a game that belied the ponderous mood of the tournament.