Liam Plunkett thrashed a six from the final ball of an incredible game to secure a tie between England and Sri Lanka in the first ODI of the Royal London series at Trent Bridge.
When Plunkett, England’s No. 10, came to the crease, his side still required 52 to win from the last 26 balls. And, in the face of some impressive death bowling, it seemed the equation had become overwhelming when the asking rate rose to 30 from the final two overs.
But Plunkett and Chris Woakes both scooped boundaries in a penultimate over that realised 16 and, after the pair scampered seven from the first five balls of the last over, it left England requiring six from the final ball to secure the tie.
Nuwan Pradeep, until then impressively consistent in his ability to nail his yorkers, dropped a few inches short only to see Plunkett open his shoulders and unleash a fierce drive back over the bowler’s head and into the pavilion.
It may be little consolation right now for a Sri Lanka team that appeared to have this game in their grasp on several occasions but perhaps, in time, they will reflect with joy on their part in a wonderful match and a superb advert for the 50-over format. And maybe they will, in time, smile at this reminder of the endearing absurdities of this great game: hours of unstinting effort and copious heroic performances by both sides resulted in the same conclusion as if the rain that has afflicted these parts had never relented.
The dramatic finale was set-up by a record-breaking stand between Woakes and Jos Buttler. Coming together with England reeling at 82 for 6, Buttler and Woakes added 138 – the highest seventh-wicket stand conceded by Sri Lanka in ODI cricket and second-highest overall – from 149 balls to give their side realistic hopes of a victory that looked impossible an hour or two earlier.
This was not the flamboyant Buttler to which we have begun to become accustomed. Instead of counter-attacking from the start, instead of premeditating or attempting to unleash the full array of his strokes, he came to the crease with his side struggling at 30 for 4 and played himself in while ensuring the run rate remained just about within reach.
His first boundary – a drive that flew agonisingly close to Farveez Maharoof at mid-off – did not come until his 17th delivery and his final strike rate of 93.93 was some way under his career rate of 117.23. Instead this was a more mature Buttler who combined his large repertoire of strokes with swift running and astute shot selection.
But when Buttler was brilliantly caught on the long-on boundary by Dasun Shanaka – timing his leap perfectly and somehow managing to keep himself from toppling over the rope – for a well-paced 93, England still required 67 from 7.3 overs and it appeared their charge had lost impetus.
David Willey, who had swung wildly and made contact rarely, was unable to sustain the momentum and when he went – a wicket only confirmed after numerous reviews by the TV umpire concluded that Maharoof had not over-stepped – it appeared England’s final chance had, too.
But Woakes, with a maiden half-century at either List A or ODI level, sustained the charge. While there were only two boundaries in his first 50 runs – and only four in his entire innings – he ran with such speed and made contact so often that England just about kept themselves in the hunt. Having been joined by Plunkett, the pair took nine from the 47th over, 10 from the 48th and 16 from the 49th to leave 14 required from the last.
For a man who may not have played had Ben Stokes been fit it was a fine effort. Woakes not only gained the Man of the Match award, but also set a new record for the highest score by a No. 8 (or lower) in the history of ODI cricket. Unruffled by the demands of the chase or, apparently, the fuss made of him afterwards, he demonstrated the composure and softly spoken steel that has long been recognised by the England management as the sort of player they want in the side. We may look back on this match – completed, as it was, by two wickets and a mature spell of bowling – as a coming of age moment.
Until Woakes and Buttler intervened, it seemed that Angelo Mathews‘ experience would prove the difference between the sides. Mathews followed his calm innings of 73 with the wickets of Jason Roy and Joe Root in the opening six overs of the England innings.
While conventional wisdom has it that aggressive batting and fast bowling hold the key to success in modern limited-overs cricket, here it was Mathews’ almost risk-free accumulation and wicket-to-wicket medium-pace that proved valuable.
Coming to the crease with his side three down within the first nine overs of the match, Mathews reasoned that his side would be better served by a period of consolidation instead of attack. Dinesh Chandimal and Mathews added 64 for Sri Lanka’s fourth wicket but, with Adil Rashid’s nicely controlled spell costing just 36 runs, it took them 16.5 overs. When Chandimal fell top-edging a sweep, it seemed Sri Lanka may struggle to set a competitive score.
Sri Lanka were, therefore, grateful for the impetus provided by Seekkuge Prasanna. He contributed 59 of a 68-run fifth-wicket stand with Mathews, thrashing a 24-ball half-century containing 48 runs in boundaries in the process. At one stage he thumped 44 from 12 deliveries, including four sixes in five deliveries from Moeen Ali and Plunkett, as Sri Lanka plundered 49 in three overs. Eoin Morgan, having chosen to go into the game with the extra batsman in Jonny Bairstow, must have wished he had an extra bowler to call upon.
Their final total still looked a little under par on a good batting surface – remarkably good bearing in mind the awful weather that had afflicted the region over the last 10 days – and with a short boundary on one side but, with England four down within the first nine overs of their reply, it seemed it would be more than enough.
But with Mathews forced to leave the pitch in the early stages of England’s reply with a recurrence of a hamstring strain, Sri Lanka were forced to make up not only his overs but, perhaps, some of the calm his experience might have provided to his teammates. Their fielding wilted under pressure and, as England grew in belief, so Sri Lanka started to look rattled.
In the end Plunkett provided the memorable finish this fine match deserved. This England side – with its apparently fragile top order and somewhat thin bowling attack – is flawed, certainly. But they don’t know when they are beaten and they seem to be playing with more belief and conviction by the month. The next few years promise a great deal more entertainment.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo