Stokes sends England past Sri Lanka into semi-final at expense of Australia

England beat Sri Lanka by four wickets to secure the two points they needed to claim a place in the semi-finals, and to knock Australia out, but only after bringing to an apparently straightforward run chase more wobbles than a Weebles collectors’ convention.

The winning runs came with two balls remaining; fortunately, like the popular 1970s toy, England wobbled but did not fall down.

Chasing 142, they reached 70 without loss at the end of the powerplay and from there they needed only to keep the ball on the floor and augment a string of singles with the occasional boundary. There are not many situations in this format where ambition is best avoided, but this was one.

Instead they got greedy and Jos Buttler, Alex Hales, Harry Brook, Liam Livingstone and Moeen Ali were caught to bring Sri Lanka back into the game, some from shots of breathtaking foolishness.

“That’s the way we play,” Adil Rashid said. “You’ve still got to play your shots and we’re still going to maintain that positive mindset going forward.”

When Sam Curran was dismissed off the last ball of the 18th over the fielding side gathered in a huddle as their supporters whistled and danced, bouncing with belief. England had lost their first wicket in the 70s, then one each in the 80s, 90s, 100s, 110s and now the 120s.

At this point Chris Woakes joined Ben Stokes and the pair adopted the strategy England should have been using for a while, running towards victory in ones and twos before Woakes finally cut past point to win the game with a four.

Dawid Malan, who pulled up in the field with an apparent groin strain and was to bat only in extremis, was padded up at the end and will have greeted the result with particular relief.

Conditions will have played a part: this was the sixth World Cup game here and the first to have been won by the side batting second. The early indications were that losing the toss was just the first blow of what would be a difficult evening for England.

It was carnage off the quicks as Sri Lanka opened their innings with a brutal assault on the seamers, starting when the second ball of the innings, bowled by Stokes, was dispatched into the stands by Pathum Nissanka – very much the shape of things to come from the 24-year-old.

Mark Wood’s first over went for 17, with his first and last deliveries going for six. After five overs Nissanka had 31 off 15, Sri Lanka were 52 for one and England were weighing up their chances of chasing 200.

In both innings the sixth over was to be crucial and in Sri Lanka’s Rashid turned the game. His four overs, marked by excellent control and variation of pace, cost 16 runs and brought his first wicket of the tournament, caught by substitute fielder Chris Jordan at long-on – catcher helping bowler to join level with him on 90 international T20 wickets, the most by an Englishman.

Curran was also superb with the ball, unlucky that his first over cost 13 thanks to a top-edged pull for four, before Nissanka scooped to deep square-leg where Brook ran in from the rope, changed his mind, backpedalled again and finally watched it fly just over his head for six. He was rewarded by his final three going for 14.

Wood returned to wreak some havoc against the tail and Sri Lanka scored 61 for six off their last 10 overs, and 25 for five off their last five. There were more boundaries in their first seven overs than in their last 13.

Sri Lanka might not have made the most of their excellent start but the challenge was for England’s openers to show similar intent and Hales rose to it. After five overs England were 50 without loss. And then came that crucial sixth.

It was bowled by Kasun Rajitha, veteran of a dozen T20s at the age of 29 and none in two years before injuries forced his addition to their squad during the tournament. It cost 20 runs. At the start of the over, England’s required run rate was 6.13. At its end it was 5.14. England needed to avoid complete collapse and they only just managed it.

This game will have been particularly painful viewing for Australia, with that brutal opening defeat by New Zealand proving decisive in their elimination on net run rate, but probably not so much for India, England’s likely semi-final opponents. For the first time in the tournament Stokes made a telling contribution with the bat, Rashid with the ball and England’s chances will rise with their confidence. “We’d like to win more easily than that but that happens,” Rashid said. “It’s not always going to go according to plan.”