Michael Atherton praised Alex Hales’ ‘game sense’ after seeing the opener smash a century to steer England to a stunning World T20 victory over Sri Lanka.
With England needing to win to keep their tournament hopes alive, they were facing a tall order after woeful fielding allowed pre-tournament favourites Sri Lanka to amass 189-4 and Nuwan Kulasekara removed Michael Lumb and Moeen Ali in the opening over of their reply.
However, Hales (116 not out) and Eoin Morgan (57 off 38) combined for 152 – England’s best-ever T20 partnership – to revive their chances before the Nottinghamshire man wrapped up the win in style with his sixth six of a fabulous knock.
The 15th over, bowled by Ajantha Mendis, proved particularly decisive, with Hales blasting 24 from the final five balls after Morgan had nudged a single from the first delivery to keep England on course for a remarkable run chase.
And Atherton told Sky Sports it is Hales’ ability to know when – and against whom – to attack which marks him out as a special player.
“That was a magnificent performance from Alex Hales,” said the former England skipper.
“We’ve seen him do it time and again for Notts. Straight away he looked in crisp form: his first four boundaries were all fantastic shots. But his game sense was excellent.
“The 15th over was absolutely key. England were just falling a bit behind the rate, they knew Lasith Malinga and Kulasekara were to come, so he smashed Mendis.
“We said they should target Mendis and not leave themselves too much to do and this over was a combination. With a bit of dew and the ball not turning he is a vulnerable bowler.
“However, if this over had only gone for half a dozen or ten they would have left themselves too much to do against Malinga and Kulasekara.
“Then, when he got to 100 his celebrations were short-lived because he knew he had a game to win. And what a way to finish the game!”
Hales becomes the first Englishman to make a T20I century, but Atherton also stressed the importance of Morgan’s contribution.
The Sky Sports pundit reckons the unorthodox 27-year-old is key to England’s tournament aspirations and an overdue half-century should boost his confidence.
“Morgan has been in bad form but if England are going to go well in this competition someone like him has to come good – and he had plenty of time to come good today,” said Atherton.
“I would like to see Morgan get in as early as possible because in T20 cricket you want to give your match winners maximum time to have an impact.
“He had a chance here to play a bit of an innings, to get himself in and the confidence the team will take from that is fantastic but most importantly the confidence Morgan will take forward will be good as well.”
England’s performance in the field was less impressive, with four chances going down and a controversial third umpire decision adding to their frustrations.
Lumb appeared to have caught Mahela Jayawardene as England made early inroads but to their dismay the ball was adjudged to have been grounded and the Sri Lanka legend went on to make an impressive 89.
Whilst Atherton was adamant the catch should have stood, he conceded England must catch better if they are to progress.
“It looked out, it should have been given out and it was one of the clearest examples where a third umpire ought to give that out,” Atherton said of the Lumb ‘catch’.
“Normally you see the third umpire say ‘there’s a bit of doubt, it looks as though the ball might just have hit the carpet’, but it didn’t look so on this occasion.
“However, the other catches should be taken. They were not difficult catches by the standards that these guys are used to. Under lights a wet ball adds a degree of difficulty but they should have been taken.”
Watch highlights of South Africa v Netherlands – and England v Sri Lanka – in Thursday’s World T20 Zone show from 8pm on Sky Sports 2 and repeated at 10.30pm.