There are nine fielders out on the ground but they are casting 36 shadows. For a side trying to bat out 90 overs away from home, which they rarely do, the lights taking effect mean they are playing against past ghosts, current shadows and an England team that’s making the ball swing. It seems like there isn’t a single gap on the infield that doesn’t have a fielder covering it. The leg side has more bodies than blades of grass. All hands on knees, waiting for a mistake.
There is one hour, 15 overs and four wickets left to fall before Nuwan Pradeep has to bat.
Sri Lanka spend the start of the last hour against Liam Plunkett, safe in their mind that their captain looks made of granite and their keeper is still there. The ball is reversing, the odd one keeping low, it is dark and England believe they can do it. Every shot now seems near a fielder. Prasanna Jayawardene is leg glancing too close to leg slip. Jordan hits him on the arm guard as well. Then he almost gloves another, and then back to leg slip.
At the other end, Angelo Mathews is enjoying a bit of respite against Joe Root. In years to come, not even Root will believe he bowled an over in this hour.
Meanwhile, at the real end, Jayawardene misses a full and straight ball that must have been near invisible, as it seems Billy Bowden also missed it. It takes all of one replay to convince every single living entity that it’s plumb.
It is now three wickets until England get to Nuwan Pradeep. The man who had never played with a leather cricket ball until he was in his 20s.
Nuwan Kulasekara is in. Remember that Champions Trophy match where he came in and smashed England everywhere like Sobers was operating his body? Well, if you saw him come out here, you would not have know it was the same guy. He has two modes: superfly-pimp-daddy smasher; and nervous tailender-in-the-way. He picked the wrong mode.
Anderson is bowling balls that seem to be swinging left, right, up, down and through parallel dimensions. Mathews comes down and suggest his man gets off strike. Kulasekara does but, in the next over, he seems to play the ball almost a full second late, down a line that never existed and his back foot kicks around randomly at the end for no good reason. He looks back at the pitch before he walks off, no one will ever know why. Stuart Broad is clearly not fit now but he takes Kulasekara’s wicket at the end his captain sent him too.
Nuwan Pradeep now has two wickets between him and his destiny. One that started when he won a reality TV contest for bowling with a tennis ball faster than anyone else. When Chaminda Vaas took over the bowling group, he introduced Pradeep to chicken and beef to try get some body on the bowler.
Rangana Herath has spent the whole match doing the breast-stroke through treacle, such is his pace, but is now trying to get off strike when Usain Bolt wouldn’t try to run.
Mathews flicks a ball off his hip where there is no one out, he walks down the wicket. Herath, now full of energy and speed, jogs past him but the ball goes all the way to the boundary before stopping just short, Mathews is mid-pitch waiting to see which end he should head too. It’s that time when ends completely take over from runs.
Mathews has clearly decided on Anderson’s end and doesn’t take an obvious single off the fourth ball. Root wanders in to chat to Mathews. Root tries his best to annoy, distract or unsettle, Mathews. Root wanders back out not having caught Mathews’ attention. Seconds later Alastair Cook is clutching at one around his groin and Mathews is gone. Sri Lanka have lost their most composed player in a crisis. The man who has saved them so many times before. The closest thing Sri Lanka has to a superhero is walking off the ground.
If you replaced Nuwan Pradeep with a puppy in the field, it wouldn’t cause much more damage. While he is naturally athletic, quick and looks like he belongs, he seems to read the ball like its Baudelaire in translation. This was at its absolute worst when he seemed to misjudge a hook shot so badly it bounced almost 15 metres in from the boundary, but still behind him. There is now only one wicket between him and the middle.
Herath is now the senior batsman, a fact of pure fear for any Sri Lankan still hoping for a draw. Herath’s batting is often quality entertainment, but not always quality. He took the Murali mantle seriously and also thought that swinging his bat wildly was the way to go. That’s not really possible when Plunkett is trying to remove your throat and a ball flies at Herath and he does all he can do by missing it. The ball was like the spook in the horror film that turns out to be the cat.
Eventually Herath pushes one away from the fielders, Shaminda Eranga starts to set off but it’s clear no real plan about running, or even which batsman will face which bowler, has been made. Herath just stands there, doesn’t even seem to call. Root is in at silly point; it’s always good to have someone like Root at silly point, not for the catch, but for the endless chat. Herath only gets a rest when the field and plans change.
His batting partner at the other end is no better. Eranga has a first-class hundred at the SSC, but doesn’t everyone? Straight balls are defended with the sort of angled face that results in genius short-leg catches from straight balls. A nation tells him to play straight. But somehow he gets it past Sam Robson, the man crouched under the helmet.
There are six balls left. They have made a mess of the last hour but they have two wickets left. Or one, if you don’t count Pradeep.
Broad is brought back, he looks injured but it’s only one over, and no one else can real bowl. The fielders line up behind Herath, or near enough to smell his fear. Broad goes wide around the wicket and fires it in short at Herath, he jumps out of the way but the ball takes his glove, he walks while England appeal. No one checks Broad on what looked very close to a back-foot no ball (it’s not). No one also notices, Herath included, that his glove was off his bat. That is until the many, many replays come up on the screen. He walked for a not out.
Now out comes a man with a two-and-half line Wikipedia entry, uncoached action, often-untucked shirt, a homemade haircut reminiscent of a member of the band Poison and a Test bowling average of 72.83. On the scoreboard they call him Fernando, everywhere else he’s called Pradeep. He seems to have walked into this situation by accident. They don’t even know his name and he’s walking out to save his country against the oldest enemy.
Pradeep is marinated by Broad first ball with a bouncer that is only there to get him where he needs him. Pradeep is little more than a piece of meat in front of the stumps. Four balls left.
Next delivery is short of a length, quick and moves away, Pradeep should be given a medal for even getting that close. Three balls left.
He middles the next one, as much as he could ever middle a ball. Suddenly he’s a batsman.
But the next one is too fast, too straight and it’s not for the likes of him. He’s instantly given out, but he reviews it before Paul Reiffel has fully given it. So does the Eranga at the non-striker’s, and perhaps every single Sri Lankan alive. England are celebrating at deep point, TMS have already tweeted the victory. But somehow Reiffel missed the huge chunk of wood hitting the ball. Nuwan Pradeep has one ball to face.
In the first innings, Pradeep faced a short ball that he clearly didn’t see. His face started to turn and his bat wafted in general self-defence, the ball smashed into his shoulder, this twisted and crashed his whole body that was now falling uncontrollably and ended with him smashing the stumps with his bat. It was embarrassing, viral and he would never ever live it down.
One more ball.
Nuwan Pradeep, or Fernando, the competition winner, leans forward with absolutely no certainty at all. It’s quick and straight from Broad. The ball takes the edge, and goes straight for second slip, Chris Jordan, England’s best slipper. It’s quick and low, like a plane flying under radar, and Jordan picks it up as clean as you can in the slips.
On the half volley.
Eranga clutches at the air, Pradeep, still in the pose of the shot, looks around confused. He’s not even sure if it has been caught. England are silent. He has done it. He saved them by inches. He survived the five toughest balls of his life.