So that answers that one, then. In a tournament where everything had gone England’s way, this time it all went against them: asked to bat first after losing the toss, labouring to work out how to pace their innings, bowling as dew drenched the outfield on a heavy, humid night, watching Tymal Mills limp off midway through his second over to shred their death bowling plans as Sri Lanka accelerated towards their target.
But they refused to throw in the towel – after all, they needed it to soak dew off the ball – and thanks to the genius of Jos Buttler an often unpleasant evening became one to savour. Sri Lanka were beaten by 26 runs and with a 100% record after four games a place in the semi-finals is all but secured.
Buttler led the team off, his colleagues walking 10 paces behind and applauding him all the way. Forty-eight hours after his 32-ball 71 powered England to victory over Australia in Dubai, their diamond demonstrated several other facets of his brilliance with a 67-ball century, transforming an innings that for a while, as so many have in this tournament, got lost in the doldrums.
But with the wind in his sails there are few batters to match Buttler and he accelerated to his first international Twenty20 century – becoming the second English player, after Heather Knight, to hit hundreds in all three formats – by lifting the final ball of the innings over square-leg for six. Over the course of 20 overs he was England’s opener, their anchor and their finisher.
How they needed him. The thing about auras of invincibility is that, handsome as they are when they settle upon you, they are not very hardwearing. Just a couple of scratches and off it comes.
It had taken three wonderfully dominant victories for England to construct the one they sported coming into this fixture, but within 20 minutes it was looking distinctly ragged.
What has set this England team apart as they have clambered from white-ball ignominy to supremacy over the past six years is an unwavering consistency of intent. They go hard and, no matter the circumstances, they keep going hard. No let-up, no respite. Here, though, for an extended period they went worryingly limp. On an unfamiliar ground, on a wicket that was skating-rink flat and sometimes similarly skiddy, they could not find their footing for a long time.
It did not help their cause that Sri Lanka, who had played three times in Sharjah at this World Cup, have a gem of their own in Wanindu Hasaranga, who claimed the wickets of Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan in four excellent overs. He has taken 34 wickets in 2021, the most by any bowler in any single year in this format.
But once Buttler started his acceleration Sri Lanka had no answer. His first 50 took 45 balls and his second 22, as he made the short boundaries look positively microscopic. Morgan took 19 balls to reach eight and then another 17 to reach 40 and between them they dragged England to a total of 163 for four.
Sri Lanka, so soundly beaten in England in June and July, are a rapidly improving side, and this was a compelling contest until the final minutes.
Once again England took three wickets in the powerplay, but Sri Lanka remained on some kind of track to reach their target until a dramatic late implosion. Mills’s injury helped, the fast bowler pulling up halfway through the 14th over to force Morgan into an on-the-hoof rethink of England’s tactical plans. He settled on a devilishly cunning one: robbed of the man who often bowls the 20th over, England ended the match in 19.
Hasaranga was primarily responsible for keeping Sri Lanka’s hopes alive that long, the 24-year-old scoring 34 off 21 and putting on 53 for the sixth wicket with his captain, Dasun Shanaka. But once he went the innings crumbled in a few chaotic minutes of wild hitting and superlative fielding.
It started with Hasaranga scooping Liam Livingstone to long-off, where Jason Roy sprinted to his left and aware that he was heading inexorably towards the rope tossed the ball to the substitute fielder, Sam Billings, to complete the catch.
Four balls later Shanaka was run out by Buttler, running around from behind the stumps, flinging off his gloves as he went, before hitting the stumps from 15 yards. Three catches in the deep later 129 for five had become 137 all out. Sri Lanka had shown that England are fallible, but they could not make them fall.