As a Brit, watching England stutter and lurch their way to the Quarter Finals has been a highly stressful affair. I need new fingernails, having chewed off my old ones in anxiety, and if we reach the finals I will probably have gnawed down to my wrist. The well—being of my hands therefore depends on whether England can overcome one of their toughest challenges of the tournament yet, Sri Lanka at home.
Based on England’s previous tournament matches, we should be in for a thriller. They lost narrowly to Bangladesh and Ireland but pulled off exhilarating victories against South Africa and the West Indies, the former by just six runs. All this without mentioning their remarkable draw against India.
England’s path to the Quarter Finals has been rocky and precarious, they have suffered agonizing losses but have conversely snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. As a result, mentally they’re a stronger team. Having progressed through the tournament on large slices of luck, England will feel the pressure is off and they have the freedom to go for it on Saturday. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, must deal with the expectations of a home crowd weighing heavy on their shoulders. How to beat a team with nothing to lose?
Based on previous encounters, Sri Lanka should have a doddle. Of the 13 ODIs England have played in Sri Lanka they have won only four, with a more miserable record of two wins in seven at Colombo. However in the shorter span over the World Cup, England will feel they have the mental edge. Sri Lanka progressed through the group stages with relatively little drama, convincing wins against the lesser teams Kenya, Zimbabwe and New Zealand were undermined by a defeat in the crunch match against Pakistan. Their temperament has yet to be tested in the fashion England’s has, leaving them susceptible to the potentially destructive effects of pressure should a tense finale present itself.
Much has been written on the exhaustion suffered by English cricketers, having been on the road for five months including an Ashes tour. The physical strain has materialized into a seemingly never-ending injury list, including potential match-winners Stuart Broad and Kevin Pietersen. Michael Yardy has felt the mental effects, dropping out from depression.
Despite this, their fresh-legged replacements have proven adept to rising to the challenge and injecting vitality into a flagging squad. All-rounder Luke Wright (44 runs) and off-spinner James Tredwell (4-48) made vital contributions in the must-win match against the West Indies.
Reports suggest Sri Lanka are preparing a slow, turning wicket at the Premadasa Stadium to provide some venom for their spin bowling attack. Ironically this could play into England’s hands and especially their front-line bowler, Graeme Swann, who would relish the spin-friendly conditions. In the batting department, as England demonstrated in their low-scoring win against South Africa, a tricky wicket suits their gritty style of batting, as opposed to a flat, batsman’s paradise.
This takes me to England’s key quality, grit. As personified in their coach Andy Flower, who kept wicket in a match with a broken finger, England have fostered a never-say-die attitude. They have already experienced the tension of a must-win game versus the West Indies and proved themselves equal to it. Despite possessing better quality players, Sri Lanka may find themselves second best in a battle of nerves.
Though England may walk out in Colombo to a hostile crowd and as firm underdogs, I have not endured such anxiety to see them go down without a fight. My judgment may be deluded by patriotism, but write them off at your peril.