England - by general agreement the best one-day team in the world - were badly beaten in Colombo on Tuesday, having already comfortably won the five-match rain-affected series. Should we therefore concede to them the excuse of mental detachment from the task at hand? Even those ruthless Mark Taylor/Steve Waugh-driven Australian teams were guilty of defeat at the hands of teams they had dismissed with contempt while the contest was "live". Mainly, this sort of lacklustre performance is the result of the subconscious; you think you're all in but you're not, you're cruising. Cruising never won much international sport. Defeat is a reminder of small margins. You might have won easily but to do so, you have had to play at somewhere near your best. When you fail to do so, the gap between you and the opponent is not so wide as you have made it appear and the rebound can be embarrassing. In short, the only way to keep your foot on the enemy's throat is to keep your foot on the enemy's throat. Anything less and you get what England got - a sharp reminder of mortality.
Jos Buttler was captain for the night, a decision mostly made out of the desire to give a game to everyone initially picked in the touring party. This meant replacing two fast bowlers with three, clearly a conundrum. So the two fast bowlers left out - Chris Woakes and Olly Stone - were accompanied to the bench by Eoin Morgan, who effectively became a stooge for the third. In came Liam Plunkett, Mark Wood and Sam Curran. A pity that Morgan wasn't in the middle to check them out. In summary, Plunkett bowled like a man who had joined the tour late because of his wedding. Which he had. Wood looked like a man who hadn't bowled competitively off his new run-up. Which he hadn't. Curran looked like a novice in the conditions. Which he is. If it sounds like a dog's dinner, it was.
There is no specific blame worth attaching, though Morgan's post-match comment that England's attitude was "very poor" must have stung those out there in the field. Morgan is one of the few on the list of international captains and coaches to whom it is worth listening. He does the facts pretty straight and sees the futility of chasing his tail. Because cricket is neither life nor death to him, he may well take stock from the old mantra "Beware getting too upset when the stakes are so low." In other words, let's keep things in perspective. England's defeat in this dead-rubber contest will not compromise their chances of winning the World Cup. Above all, the match showed the young Sri Lankan cricketers in a good light, without diminishing England's remarkable achievements of late. Thirty-eight one-day matches won from the last 52 played is some going.
Morgan saw the value in Buttler having a run out as captain because who is to say Morgan himself won't pick up an injury prior to a big World Cup moment, and Buttler won't be faced with an onslaught similar to the one inflicted on the England attack on Tuesday afternoon by Sri Lanka's front four. This was serious in-the-line-of fire stuff, an advance by Dinesh Chandimal's men for which England were not equipped. The message was simple: you mess with cricket at your peril.
"Defeat is a reminder of small margins. You might have won easily but to do so, you have had to play at somewhere near your best. When you fail to do so, the gap between you and the opponent is not so wide as you have made it appear"
Buttler was lucky not to win the toss because he said he would have bowled first had he done so. Ouch. The game began with some mediocre new-ball bowling from Wood and Sam Curran, lapsed into frankly dreadful fielding, and finished with pusillanimous batting. Exonerated from any of this was Ben Stokes, who from start to finish played as if it was the World Cup final itself. His frustration at the shambles around him was plain to see, and his innings of 67, in spite of severe cramp, was a statement to the less committed among his number. He and Alex Hales have yet to appear before the ECB beak on the subject of his night out in Bristol last year. There will be many a crossed finger in the hope of a lenient view.
Hales has now played two innings in Sri Lanka with little effect. We know him to be a champion one-day batsman, capable of pyrotechnics and record-breaking, but he looks rusty - the usual stuff, such as slow footwork and errant hands. Therefore the obvious question is asked, the one about the wisdom of retiring from the red-ball game to focus exclusively on the white. Probably he thought that lucrative contracts in the franchise leagues would be on offer at every turn, but this has not quite been the case. Sure, some are there and the bucks make them worthwhile, but is it really so awful playing in the County Championship for Nottinghamshire with a place in the England team as the endgame? Perhaps Morgan, once reluctant about county cricket himself, will advise him to rethink, for the captain's sparkling form surely has something to do with time at the crease for Middlesex last summer.
Hales is bound to feel some pique at Jonny Bairstow's elevation, and success, in his stead. The figures support the selection - both Bairstow's alone and those of his partnership with Jason Roy - so Hales must tread water patiently in the meantime. It is the way of sport.
Bairstow's injury has caused the anti-football lobby to raise its voice. Morgan hears them but has no truck. Many things do a successful team make and among them in this instance are the happy-go-lucky football matches that the England cricketers play in the build-up to every day they represent their country. Most are good players and all have a blast. The laughter, the competition and the loosening of mind and body are all a part of the dust-off prior to the main event. Post-nets, another option is to sit in the dressing room, fretting. No, thanks. Morgan won't be budged on this: the football reflects the absence of limitations that has freed dressing-room spirit and contributed to the enjoyment of an intense life that daily asks challenging and wearing questions of its personnel. Anything that relaxes the mind, that clears it of "traffic", is worth pursuing until the cost of the fallout outweighs the considerable advantage. England are nowhere near that point yet - ask Bairstow, who is the best footballer among them and eager for more.
In general, then, Morgan might have cause for a little concern but no need for panic. The trick will be to keep his high-flying team flying high up until the opening match of the World Cup, on May 30th against South Africa. In only one area might he have a problem, that of fast bowler. He has found huge benefit in Plunkett's pace and experience, mainly in the middle overs of an innings and towards its end. Wood has used the new ball on occasion but also brought value to the middle of an innings, when most teams move from cruise control and look to go through the gears. For the reasons given above, it was difficult to judge either yesterday but the suggestion lingers that Plunkett is a yard down on pace and that Wood is troubled by insecurity and the threat of injury. Almost certainly, this is why Stone has been included in the thinking. The selectors have studied the tea leaves and acted decisively. They may be none the wiser, but better to have started the search now than too late.
Meantime, one wonders what Morgan has had to say behind closed doors. A bollocking perhaps? Or just a ticking off? Maybe a line or two about hubris? Or a sharp "Lesson learnt, lads." Any which way, he will have told them to move on. After all, on Tuesday night, the stakes were low. That may not be an excuse but it is a fact.