Chris Woakes, Jonny Bairstow play bully boys to serve reminder of Sri Lanka’s decline
LONDON – As Jonny Bairstow peeled off a succession of boundaries to fire England’s chase of a small target at Chester-le-Street, a buoyant crowd began to sense that this ODI was going almost exactly to plan. With Sri Lanka dismissed more than seven overs shy of batting out their 50, and England as keen as ever to secure a quick kill, hopes rose of knocking the match on the head in time for kick-off at Wembley.
In the end, England’s overeager attempts to get the job done were encapsulated by Bairstow’s 43 off 21, bowled chopping on. A clatter of wickets put a check on their momentum, but Sri Lanka missed crucial chances in the field and never had enough on the board in the first place. Sam Curran clouted the winning runs in the cricket at around the 28-minute mark in the football – and the 7,500 in the stands quickly thinned out.
The only thing that could now put a dampener on the mood was Gareth Southgate’s team selection (or, perhaps, the Germans).
International cricket’s return to the northeast for the first time since the 2019 World Cup was greeted by balmy conditions and a 50% capacity crowd – the enthusiastic roars and bass-heavy ‘choons’ between overs told you it was a ground half-full rather than half-empty. England colours were in abundance, though in one of the country’s footballing strongholds it wasn’t a surprise to see several sporting white (or red), in preference to the light blue worn by Eoin Morgan’s side.
Durham is often cast as the archetypal English outpost to which touring teams, particularly those from the subcontinent, are sent to struggle. But Sri Lanka had beaten England on their two previous ODI encounters at the ground – both times emphatically.
In 2006, Mahela Jayawardene’s unbeaten, run-a-ball 126 secured an eight-wicket at Chester-le-Street, as Sri Lanka marched almost unimpeded towards a 5-0 series win. The towelling England received that summer highlighted in the starkest of terms just how far off the pace they were in the one-day game. Eight years later, as a side built in the mould of Alastair Cook clanked steadily towards another bout of World Cup ignominy, Sri Lanka dismissed their hosts for 99. On that tour, they took home trophies across all three formats.
Times have changed, as last week’s T20I series demonstrated, although Mark Wood expressed some surprise going into the first ODI at how far Sri Lanka seemed to have fallen. “When I was growing up, they had some of the greatest names in the game,” he said. But the days of Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya flaying English bowlers around their own grounds have long gone.
Here, aside from the home side’s trigger-happy stumble during the chase, the heart of the contest lay in the efforts of Kusal Perera and his charges to make a game of it against an England XI that still possessed a formidable heft, in spite of the absence of several first-choice players – Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer – through injury. That they were able to play the role of bully boys was largely down to the spick-and-span efforts of Chris Woakes, a man about as far away from in-your-face domineering as it is possible to be.
Woakes’ immaculate opening spell of 5-4-6-2 from the Finchale End left Sri Lanka struggling to stay afloat, and when he returned to end a 99-run stand between Perera and Wanindu Hasaranga, it precipitated a slide of 7 for 40 that seemed to torpedo the tourists for good. In the process, he claimed his 150th ODI wicket – only five bowlers have more for England – and equalled James Anderson’s record of 13 four-wicket hauls in the format.
With Woakes back in the role of “Mr Dependable”, after a winter in which he was more “Mr Invisible”, Mark Wood rapid and David Willey incisive, England were able to cauterise the Sri Lanka innings, despite the counterpunch provided by Perera and Hasaranga.
There was plenty that was figuratively apposite about Perera holding up the Sri Lanka innings while the rest collapsed to rubble around him. Not only has he had to contend with three of his senior players being sent home for an unsanctioned trip to experience the after-dark charms of Durham city centre’s historic marketplace, but Oshada Fernando and Dhananjaya de Silva were ruled out on the morning of the match with illness and injury respectively.
His opening partner, Pathum Nissanka, had all of six ODIs to fall back on for experience; the No. 3, Charith Asalanka, was making his debut; the next two men in, Dasun Shanaka and Hasaranga, were batting well above their usual stations. Yet Perera stayed true to the no-fear approach that he invoked when handed the captaincy last month, and in partnership with Hasaranga gave his side something to bowl at. In fact, had he held on to a Moeen Ali edge when England were 80 for 4, a scare might have been on the cards.
By then, the small pocket of Sri Lanka supporters at the Lumley end of the ground had largely given up on waving their flag. Even at this early stage of the World Cup Super League, Sri Lanka look destined to be scrapping it out at the qualifier – but at least amid the malaise affecting their cricket, Perera’s pugnacity offers a standard to rally around.