Report By Neil Robinson 16/05/2006
Practice makes perfect they say!
The revelation by Andrew Strauss halfway through this match that Englandís slip fielders had been practicing dropping catches in order to snaffle the rebounds was proof enough of that. No fewer than ten catches were grassed by culpaple English fielders at Lordís this week, and the only one that offered a possible rebound went down as well. If they do a little more work to try and iron out that fault who knows how many they might drop. The end result here was that a position of utter dominance which England had established by the end of day two, was squandered completely as Sri Lanka battled their way, with as much determination as luck, to a draw in the first Test.
After two days it seemed almost inconceivable that England could fail to seal victory. Their batsmen, to a man, had played with good judgement and style. Trescothick, back after his winter troubles, played an innings of smooth power, the smile on his face coming out through his strokes. Both he and Strauss might have gone much further were it not for Muralitharan, both edging unplayable balls low to slip. But the work was continued by Cook and Pietersen, two batsmen of completely contrasting attitudes, united only by mutual self-belief. Most batsmen learn to play within their limitations through costly trial and error, for Cook this seems to be his default position; just 21 already he knows exactly what he is capable of and will not try anything more extravagant. Yet this does not make him a limited player, for he is capable of plenty already.
Pietersen, of course, knows no such humility. But there was a degree of craftiness about this innings, the early supple flicks to leg causing the field to shift to that side of the wicket, followed by a series of thumping shots to off, showed promise of a maturing cricket brain. Some frantic hits in the 90s betrayed a lingering hint of nervous tension, but this was always going to be a big innings. His departure, lbw to Vaas having equalled the 158 he made at the Oval last year, soon followed by Collingwoodís for a sturdy 57, signalled Englandís declaration thrash, ably handled by the firm of Flintoff and Jones.
Save for a third wicket partnership of 60 between the experienced Sangakkara and Jayawardene there was little to distinguish the Sri Lankan reply on the second evening. Both openers fell lbw to Hoggard, and it was that same firm-footed fallibility that led to the sudden loss of 4 wickets for 4 runs just before the close. Three of them fell to debutant paceman Sajid Mahmood, who showed the same sort of loose-limbed, rubbery action I imagine the Demon Spofforth must have had back in the first years of Test cricket. By the end of his second over he had already posted the five fastest balls of the match, and already the wickets were tumbling; Sangakkara edging to slip with palpable anguish, Samaraweera and Kapugedera lbw to fast, inswinging deliveries. The run-out of Dilshan occurred on his watch too, the nervous batsman vainly trying to persuade his captain to go for a single and finding himself stranded in mid pitch. Geraint Jones took a difficult low return well before whipping off the bails, thus making up for a fairly straight-forward drop a few minutes earlier. For once his was not the only fault.
The warning signs appeared early for England on day three. Clearly stung by a Tom Moody rocket, the Sri Lankans came out in more determined form and when the first chances went down, England found that new chances came much more rarely. They would capture only five more wickets all day, and even though this still meant that Sri Lanka were obliged to follow on a huge 359 runs behind, with bad weather approaching England had to get their act together.
The last of those five wickets was that of opener Mubarak, early in their second innings, offering a crooked bat to Hoggard and playing on. It would be some time before another Sri Lankan batsman failed, Samaraweera caught in two minds between a cut and a leave and edging Mahmood to Jones late on the fourth day. Those two apart only Kapugedera and little Murali failed to reach 50, and he was left stranded on 1 when bad light arrived at the death. Jayawardene followed up his plucky 61 in the first innings with a true captainís knock of 119, joining the rare band of overseas batsmen to claim two entries on the Lordís honours boards.
Sangakkara was rock-like once more, Upul Tharanga played a joyous knock of 52 that was just blossoming when he edged Panesar behind, Maharoof, whose nascent first-class career has brought an average of under 20, came in at five and looked as if heíd been there for years. And all the while the catches went down, which was not bad luck, and Liam Plunkett, recovering from a rash of no-balls in the first innings, passed the bat a score of times without getting an edge, which was.
It would be a churlish critic who condemned the inexperienced captain Flintoff for his fieldersí inability to catch, or for the flatness of the pitch which the Sri Lankans now found so comfortable, but his unwillingness to bowl Panesar was perplexing. While Englandís seamers were scything through the Sri Lankans in the first innings it was not suprising he stuck with them, but as the touristsí resistance grew all through days four and five, Panesar, surely, was the obvious man to shoulder the burden. One of the key concerns about Flintoff taking over the captaincy was the risk that he might overbowl himself. Sure enough, with England spending more than three days in the field, Flintoff tried to carry them himself, bowling a mammoth 51 overs in the second innings while the usual workhorse Hoggard weighed in with 46. Panesar, by comparison, bowled just 27, with a better economy and strike rate than anyone, and spent much of his time chasing the ball to the boundary cheered on by his growing fan-club.
After the tension and exhultation of 2005, the Ashes and all that, this was a back down to earth moment for Test cricket in England. In truth, the longer the game went on, the duller the play, and the weather, got. Slowly, inexorably, the hunger seemed to drain from England, Sri Lankan defiance only grew. When Vaas and Kulasekera returned to their dressing room at tea on the final day, the jubilation that greeted them was evidence enough that the game was saved. The end was damp squib and blessed release in one.
England 551 for 6 dec. (Trescothick 106, Strauss 48, Cook 89, Pietersen 158, Collingwood 57)
Sri Lanka 192 (Jayawardene 61, Hoggard 4-27) & 537 for 9 (Tharanga 52, Sangakkara 65, Jayawardene 119, Maharoof 59, Dilshan 69, Kulasekera 64, Vaas 50*)
Man of the Match