Moeen genius can’t take England to record chase

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The first One Day International of the Hero Cup between Sri Lanka and England was the latter’s 627th match in the format. Having watched England play limited over cricket for years, it felt like I had watched this scenario unfold before – about 626 times.

Without the injured trio of Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and James Anderson –three integral components in England’s bowling plans – their replacements struggled. First, they struggled to find the right length. Then, they struggled to find the right line. The result of this frankly pathetic combination wasn’t pretty. Having won the toss and opted to field in ideal conditions on a pitch that offered seam movement, Alastair Cook had the right to be, at the least, puzzled at the profligacy of his bowlers. Harry Gurney, presumably the chief beneficiary of Finn’s latest misfortune, sprayed the ball around – lacking the consistency that we have become accustomed to seeing from the Nottinghamshire left-armer. Opening the bowling before coming back at the death, Gurney struggled to ever find either the appropriate line or length for what was a slightly tacky wicket. Chris Woakes fared similarly. After starting well and briefly troubling the belligerent – if not fluent – Kusal Perera, the Warwickshire man faded and didn’t appear to cause any severe concerns to the Sri Lankan opening pair.

Dilshan

For it was an opening partnership of 120 between Perera and the evergreen Tilakaratne Dilshan that led the way to a fearsome total of 317. This was no mean feat on what was not the sort of pristine M25-style track that will be seen come the World Cup Down Under. Beyond the state of the wicket, after steady drizzle for the previous 72 hours had already caused the abandonment of England’s final warmup game, the outfield was stodgy and soft, meaning that batsmen never got full value for their shots. They were, though, helped on their way by England’s inauspicious display in the field. Both James Tredwell and Eoin Morgan took it in turns to drop difficult chances at midwicket, whilst England bowled a staggering sixteen wides – equating to an extra 2.4 overs in the field and a statistic that probably points at a crucial factor in England’s defeat.

A major benefactor was Ben Stokes, who continued from where he left off in the English summer. Put simply, if Stokes is deemed as ‘selectable’ in his current state, one can only imagine quite how out of sorts Steven Finn was during the ill-fated Ashes series. Running up with the assurance of a newly born foal, the all-rounder simply looks bereft of confidence. With Cook only entrusting him with four expensive overs – as much for his own sake as his team’s – the burden on spinners Joe Root, Moeen Ali and James Tredwell increased.

They too proved expensive, bowling a cumulative 22 overs for 130. Tredwell was the pick of England’s bowlers – wily and thoughtful as always. Moeen continued his fine run against the world’s best Test batsman – dismissing Kumar Sangakarra with a snorter of a delivery for the third time in three innings. Despite the fight-back from the spinners, late blasts from Jeevan Mendis and Lahiru Thirimanne, together with 50s from Mahela Jayawardene, Perera and Dilshan, took Sri Lanka to their imposing total.

There followed a future trivia question in the making. Alastair Cook, facing up to Angelo Mathews’ gentle medium-pacers, proceeded to be hit plumb in front twice in two deliveries. Both times – to the neaked eye – he appeared a goner. Both times, umpire Palliyaguruge raised his finger. Both times, the review system saved the England skipper. Newly promoted to open the innings with his captain, Moeen Ali’s job was to provide some impetus and the sort of start that Messrs Finch, Sharma, Warner and McCullum will guarantee their sides in Australia.

With Cook making batting look like rocket science combined with brain surgery, Moeen caressed, bludgeoned, flicked and punched his way through a merry boundary fest that appeared all the more impressive given the carnage at the other end. When Cook’s ungainly ‘prodathon’ finally ran out of lives, Ali reached his fifty from only 24 deliveries. In partnership with Ian Bell, England waltzed past 100 inside thirteen overs. As is so often the case with Bell, he was dismissed with the job just half-complete.

Again, Bell’s downfall was thanks to his flawed tendency to look to open the blade towards third man, even in defence. The result was yet another slip catch for Jayawardene. Joe Root, also the victim of his own technical flaw, nicked behind after a flat-footed waft. Eoin Morgan then came and went, dragging on to Ajantha Mendis. This collapse – an England ODI trademark – came in the space of 23 balls.

Yet, through all the chaos, there was a constant: Moeen – stylish even by the standards of the great left-handers. He continued along his cavalier way, making a mockery of the cumbersome poking and prodding just 22 yards away from him. While he was there, England were probably favourites. Seeing the ball like a boulder, the offspinner reached his maiden ODI hundred from just 72 balls. When he went, though, chipping tamely back to Mendis for 119, the game should have been up.

Ravi Bopara, as he so often does, nearly got England home – but couldn’t creep over the line. He made 65 before falling to a terrific catch from Kusal Perera to give Sri Lanka a 27 run victory and first blood in this seven match series.

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