Before Jos Buttler, England had 3 other centurions in T20Is. But this innings was special, from a special player who on Monday, became the first England cricketer to score hundreds in all 3 formats.
In the end, England’s winning mentality came to the fore. With the game on an even keel and a specialist bowler, Tymal Mills, back in the dressing-room after suffering an injury, Eoin Morgan had to turn to Liam Livingstone to bowl the 17th over.
Sri Lanka needed 41 runs off 24 balls, and Wanindu Hasaranga and Dasun Shanaka were in the middle of an exciting partnership. But Morgan’s field placements were superb and substitute Sam Billings pulled off a stunner in the deep via a Jason Roy assist to dismiss the dangerous-looking Hasaranga. Sri Lanka fizzled quickly to lose by 26 runs. England made it four on the spin, this time after being stretched and losing the toss. They are the team to beat at this T20 World Cup.
Before Jos Buttler, England had three other centurions in T20Is – Alex Hales, Dawid Malan and Liam Livingstone. But this innings was special, from a special player who on Monday in Sharjah became the first England cricketer to score hundreds in all three formats. Buttler was resplendent in his judiciousness followed by cultured destruction of the Sri Lankan bowlers.
Batting first on a sluggish Sharjah pitch wasn’t easy. Sri Lanka, Hasaranga (3/21) to be precise, bowled beautifully upfront to create pressure. But England eventually got to 163/4, Buttler scoring 101 of those runs in 67 balls.
Beyond India and Pakistan, and to some extent Afghanistan, cricket doesn’t woo fans in this part of the world. Sharjah was noisy but half-empty. Those who cared to turn up were privileged to witness Buttler’s batting.
Very few batsman in white-ball cricket has his range. Mahela Jayawardene saw it at a pretty developing stage of Buttler’s career and promoted him to open the innings for Mumbai Indians. The player is now a lot more cerebral, with the ability to outthink the bowlers for fun. For such a smart cricketer with such exhilarating shot-making range, why has he failed to crack the Test code, consistency-wise, remains a mystery. But at the moment, it’s about a World Cup and Buttler has been at the forefront of his team’s forward march. No team has won the 50-over and the T20 World titles in the same cycle yet. England would be disappointed not to achieve the special feat.
Scoop is one of Buttler’s signature shots and he plays it so well because of his ability to pre-empt. Sample this: Dushmantha Chameera bowled a full-toss on off, the England opener shimmied his left leg towards leg-side, completely opened his stance and scooped it over the wicketkeeper’s head for a four. On air, Michael Atherton drew a goalkeeping analogy, the way a goalkeeper studies a penalty-taker from the line.
Against Australia in the last game, he was quick to hit top gear, first through a six off Ashton Agar followed by the complete dismantling of Mitchell Starc. The Sharjah pitch demanded more circumspection, more so because England lost three early wickets. Buttler had to anchor the innings. For an explosive batting line-up like England, 61/3 after 12 overs was pretty slow going. Morgan’s decision to not promote Moeen Ali ahead of him at No. 5 looked to be hurting his side. But his team was playing to a plan. They had a target on mind and acceleration started from the 13th over onwards. By then, Hasaranga’s first spell was done and mystery spinner Maheesh Theekshana had finished his quota.
From 13 to 16 overs, England scored 49 runs without losing a wicket. That’s where the game changed. As for Morgan, a place in the semifinals already secured, the skipper took the opportunity to spend time in the middle and return to form. It was a crawl initially and serious discomfort against spin – just nine runs off 19 balls from the bowlers of that variety. But gradually Morgan got better, scoring 40 off 36 balls. More importantly, during the fallow phase he didn’t throw his wicket away, resorting to poor shot selection. The fourth wicket partnership stitched 112 runs.
Coming back to Buttler, he copped flak during the home Test series against India this summer. Skipped a Test, when his wife was expecting their second child. Opted out of the second phase of the IPL and came to the T20 World Cup after recharging his batteries. So far, he has scored 214 runs from four games at a strike-rate of 153.95.
England have been ticking the other boxes as well. Their spinners, Moeen and Adil Rashid, returned with figures of 2/15 and 2/19 respectively, braving the evening dew. A handful of England fans, who came to the ground, returned home carrying real optimism.