Too often in recent months, Moeen Ali has not just found himself competing against the opposition, but his own team as well. England's first ODI in Sri Lanka encapsulated just that. In pursuit of a hefty 318, they fell 26 short of victory, despite Moeen blasting 119 from only 87 deliveries.
As partner after partner fell away, Moeen continued to swish and clobber, becoming England's third-fastest ODI centurion in an innings consisting of 11 boundaries and five sixes. Ravi Bopara tried earnestly to hoist England home once Moeen was dismissed, but his effort of 65 was never going to be enough, considering the mediocrity surrounding him.
Earlier in the day the visitors were made to toil as Sri Lanka racked up an imposing 317 from their 50 overs. Tillakaratne Dilshan (88) and Kusal Perera (59) set a platform which Mahela Jayawardene's 55 duly built on. Late cameos of 27 and 30 Lahiru Thirimanne and Jeevan Mendis ensured the home side ticked over 300, with 54 runs coming in the final five overs.
BATSMEN FAIL AGAIN
It was England's first ODI since September but little has changed since the summer's 3-1 defeat at home to India. Whilst Moeen played freely and with ease the rest of the top order struggled to make an impact. Opening the innings, Alastair Cook nurdled ten before being adjudged LBW to Dilshan. Ian Bell looked comfortable for his run-a-ball 35 but a tame push snaffled by Jayawardene at slip sparked a mini collapse.
Joe Root looked edgy during his short stay, and sloppy footwork saw him nick a Thisara Perera delivery to wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara for just two. Eoin Morgan made only one, an inside edge hitting the stumps from Ajantha Mendis' bowling.
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Jos Buttler stuck around for a quick 21 but whilst England kept up with the required run rate, regular wickets blunted hopes of a surprise victory, which all but died after Moeen nudged Jeevan Mendis' ball straight back to him, for an easy return catch.
England's pace duo of Chris Woakes and Harry Gurney failed to restrict the Sri Lankans, leaking over 130 runs from their combined 20 overs, rewarded only with Woakes' two wicket. Moeen's costly 10 overs brought one wicket for 66 runs, whilst a poor Ben Stokes spilled 36 from just four.
James Tredwell however turned in a predictably containing performance, his 10 overs of spin returning admirable figures of 2-52 to apply somewhat of a choke in the middle overs. Tredwell has become a model of consistency for in the 50-over format and another impressive performance bodes well for England as the World Cup approaches. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the rest.
WORLD CUP LOOMING
With the World Cup a mere two and a half months way England need a quick reversal of fortunes with the bat in particular if they wish to progress from their group.
The refusal to dislodge the deadwood is preventing other players from staking a claim to make the final XI for the tournament. Reluctance to remove the captaincy from Cook means a choice is required between either Moeen or Alex Hales, when it would be much simpler, and more radical, to select both.
Morgan's last 11 innings have yielded a poor 189 runs at an average of just 17.18, whilst Root is also yet to fully justify his selection, with a century against India his only one-day innings of note over the English summer. Another unassuming day from Ben Stokes once again raises the question of what he brings to the side.
So who could come in? Gary Ballance has proven himself as a prolific run-scorer in limited-overs cricket with an average in excess of 50. Despite not impressing in his first ODI stint, Ballance deserves another shot considering England's malaise.
That James Taylor has played just two ODIs against Ireland is one of the biggest injustices in world cricket. The dimuntive player from Nottingham is another whose domestic one-day average is above 50 and the 24-year-old has more than earnt a trial before the World Cup.
Hales is another obvious suggestion with the opener possibly the perfect partner for Moeen at the top of the order. The duo have the potential to wreak havoc to opposition bowlers in the early powerplay phases. If England had the guts to drop Cook - who for all his Test qualities is not a one-day cricketer - they would have an exciting and productive opening pairing.
THE SERIES AHEAD
The second contest in the seven-match series will, like the first, be played at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. England must take heart and inspiration from Moeen's brilliant hundred. There were some positives to take. Unsually, they didn't get behind on the run rate, maintaining a steady six-an-over pace throughout the innings. Aiming to score steadily over the course of an innings is a much more tactful approach than attempting to keep wickets in hand for a late assault, a strategy that rarely succeeds.
The Sri Lankans are a formidable unit, even more so at home, and are unlikely to relent in the next few matches. Asia Cup champions earlier in the year, they have their point to prove for the World Cup, where they have been losing finalists in the last two editions.
Sri Lankan weather has a tendency to be dark and gloomy, by the end of the series England's World Cup hopes may be even more so.
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