Cometh the hour, cometh the man; nerveless Ben Stokes led England into the T20 World Cup semi-finals with a nail-biting four-wicket victory over Sri Lanka with two balls to spare.
Stokes has so often stepped up when England have needed him most and their talisman produced the goods once again as they survived an almighty scare at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
It wasn’t an innings that will live long in the memory like the 2019 World Cup final or his Headingley heroics which followed later that same summer. But his unbeaten 36-ball 42 could well be the reason England eventually end up winning this World Cup.
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I wrote about how Stokes could be hampering England’s hopes of lifting the trophy earlier in the event, but he showed why he’s such an important cog in this squad as they head towards the business end of the tournament.
Ice-cool Stokes is a man for a crisis and he thrives in these crunch moments. And there was no-one better primed to lead England home as a flurry of wickets fell around him than Ben Stokes.
England had slumped from 75/0 to 111/5, and then 129/6, but Stokes’ experience came to the fore as his crucial knock steered them to victory after the bowlers did well to restrict Sri Lanka to 141.
Jos Buttler’s side had been left in a precarious position earlier in the tournament as the extreme weather in Australia threatened to wash away their hopes of glory Down Under.
Their shock five-run defeat in a rain-affected game against Ireland and the total wash out against Australia left their chances of a coveted title hanging by a thread.
But they reignited their trophy bid with a professional performance against New Zealand, who looked the early form favourites after hammering the hosts — and defending champions — on the opening day.
And after the Aussies crawled to a marginal victory against Afghanistan on Friday, Matt Mott’s side knew victory against the already eliminated Sri Lankans would be enough to secure their spot in the final four alongside Kane Williamson’s Kiwis.
Mark Wood took 3/26 with his terrifying thunderbolts, before England overcame a big wobble with the bat to secure the much-needed win to keep them in the event.
Buttler knew his side would have to win their last four games to lift the trophy. The collapse which saw them lose five wickets for just 36 runs was far from ideal, but it’s knockout cricket and the result is the only thing he cares about.
The skipper said: “It got close at the end, I’m not a great watcher and I didn’t enjoy that one bit. It was all about getting the win, and I’m delighted we’ve done that.
“These situations are what Ben Stokes is made for. While he’s at the crease it gives you a sense of calm. He’s a proper competitor and it’s getting to these stages of competitions when you see him grow and grow.
“He can play in a lot of roles, he affects the game in all three facets.”
Sri Lanka got off to a rapid start and were 39/1 after an explosive opening four overs. Opener Pathum Nissanka continued to accelerate as he smashed a superb 67 off just 45 balls.
The Asia Cup champions looked destined to put England under immense pressure with a mammoth total before the excellence of their bowling attack took hold.
Leg-spinner Adil Rashid, who has been a worry this tournament due to the lack of his usual form, took the sting out of the innings with a tight spell of 1/16 from his four overs.
Sam Curran has been a revelation at this tournament with his prowess in his new-found role bowling at the death. The skiddy left-armer expertly varies his pace and length and has used the dimensions of the grounds to his advantage.
After their fast start the wheels well and truly came off as their innings stalled with an underwhelming 90 runs coming off their last 15 overs. It had the air of a dead rubber for Sri Lanka as they lacked any urgency to propel themselves to a competitive total.
England wasted little time in putting a huge dent in their target. Openers Buttler and Alex Hales got off to a flier with an entertaining 75-run partnership from just 7.2 overs.
The turning point came when they were dismissed in quick succession by impressive leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga, the second best T20 bowler in the world according to the ICC rankings.
That scare quickly turned into a wobble as they lost five wickets for 36 runs as the Sri Lanka spinners turned the screw. Nerves started to seep into the England camp with their semi-final hopes on the line after a string of soft dismissals.
Lahiru Kumara’s 18th over went for just two runs and ended with the dismissal of Sam Curran to leave England needing 13 off the final two overs.
But steely-eyed Stokes, promoted to number three after Dawid Malan tweaked his groin in the field, finished the job when he was needed most.
Opener Hales, who crashed 47 off 30 balls, said: “It was a little bit nervy as it would be in such a big game. We bat all the round down to 11. We are pleased to get the job done.
“My game plan was to get ahead of the game early because it looked harder in the middle overs. I wanted to kill it off in the powerplay as much as possible. The powerplay is the best time to bat on a used pitch.
“It would be an absolute dream to become world champions. The chance to put the England shirt back on in a country I love would be special.”
Match Scorecard (England won by four wickets):
Sri Lanka: 141/8 (20): Nissanka 67 (45); Wood 3/26
England: 144/6 (19.4): Hales 47 (30), Stokes 42* (36); Hasaranga 2/23, Kumara 2/24
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