Match Report by Neil Robinson 17/12/03
A stubborn, seven-hour 105 runs from England captain Michael Vaughan laid the foundation for another successful English rearguard action in the second Test at Kandy. In a match which closely mirrored the first encounter of the series at Galle, Sri Lanka again won the toss and batted well enough to put the visitors under pressure in the final innings. This time, England had no hope of salvation from the weather once a cyclone reported in the Bay of Bengal decided to head for the coast of India instead. They had to rely upon their own fighting qualities in order to go into the final Test in Colombo on Thursday all square and Vaughan, with strong support from Graham Thorpe, Paul Collingwood, Chris Read and Gareth Batty, ensured that the series would enter a fascinating final stage with honours even.
After a tight First Test at Galle, both teams took the negative option of reinforcing their batting. Following three years in the Test wilderness, Tillekeratne Dilshan won a recall for the home team in place of leg-spinner Upul Chandana, while England raised eyebrows by omitting both new-ball bowlers from the Galle Test, Richard Johnson and Matthew Hoggard, in order to recall Nasser Hussain and retain Collingwood. James Kirtley came in for his first Test of the winter to take the new ball in partnership with Andrew Flintoff. It was a sign of mutual caution which might have presaged a dull, negative Test match. As it was, the tension and determination to make no mistake which characterised both sides’ performances led to a nail-biting affair which went down to the last overs and the barest cuticles.
The impression created in Galle that this would be a hard-fought series was confirmed on a first day which ebbed and flowed and ended with both sides entertaining hopes of a decisive breakthrough on day 2. Despite the despair of Vaughan losing his seventh toss in eight Tests as captain, England began well, Kirtley trapping Atapattu lbw for 11 in the seventh over. A brisk fifty partnership followed between Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara until Sangakkara got on the wrong end of a poor, hesitant call from his partner for the second Test in succession. Soon after this, Jayasuriya was unlucky to be judged caught behind off Ashley Giles, Chris Read leaping on top of Hussain at short-leg after fumbling his first attempt at the take.
England’s fine start was now held up by the most attractive partnership of the series so far. Mahela Jayawardene, back in form after his immaculate fifty at Galle, put on 103 with the recalled Dilshan, but it was Dilshan whose innings really caught the eye. In this cautious, close fought series, the few innings of substance so far have been determined affairs of technique and application, the batsman concerned displaying absolute commitment to defence against the turning ball, the length of his innings of greater importance than its artistic merit. Dilshan, on the other hand, threw caution to the wind and played with a freedom which almost seemed alien to the battle between these two well-matched teams. Dilshan scored two first-class centuries against England’s last touring side, and while the England bowling attack had changed notably in personnel since then, he seemed to marry the confidence remembered from those innings to a hunger to make this long-awaited chance count. The result was an innings of dashing footwork, flashing blade and crashing boundaries, and for such a cavalier knock, remarkably little was required in the way of luck.
It was a fine catch from the athletic Kirtley which finally broke the partnership, running round at deep backward square leg to pouch a lofted sweep from Jayawardene. Dilshan hung around long enough to notch a well-deserved fifty, but soon after tea gloved a lifter from Flintoff to slip for 63. Thilan Samaraweera soon fell lbw to Giles for 3, but Chaminda Vaas, whose batting has proved almost as much of an obstacle to England here as his left-arm swing bowling, hung around to add 64 with Hashan Tillekeratne before Kirtley returned to trap him lbw just before the close.
277 for 7 represented a fair day’s work for both sides. Early wickets for England would put them in the box seats, a lack of them would serve the same purpose for Sri Lanka. But this has been a series notable for the determined resistance of its tail-end batsmen and this Test was no different. Tillkeratne fell to a top-edged hook off Flintoff without adding to his overnight 45, but poor bowling from England combined with Giles’ inability to gain a positive lbw result allowed Sri Lanka to take their total to 382, Dinusha Fernando claiming a maiden Test fifty.
But it was the very end of the Sri Lankan innings which provided the saddest moment of interest of the Test. As Muttiah Muralitharan walked out to bat, TV cameras recorded a clear verbal exchange between him and England’s Nasser Hussain. It looked as if Hussain has made some sort of remark to the little Sri Lankan off-spinner, one which made Murali’s eyes widen in a mixture of amusement and outrage. Later, the Sri Lankans lodged a complaint, claiming that Hussain’s outburst had included such words as ‘chucker’ and ‘cheat’. In the end, the fact that the cameras only captured Muralitharan’s reaction, rather than Hussain’s words (not that the former England captain was denying anything), forced match referee Clive Lloyd to confine his action to a general warning that any breach of the ICC code of conduct during the rest of the series would be treated harshly. Whatever the precise words used by Hussain, it is not the sort of behaviour which should be expected or tolerated from a captain of England, past or present. Harder to get away with too in these days of constant TV coverage, as Mike Gatting discovered in Pakistan a few years ago.
Far too much attention the following morning was devoted to whether or not it was acceptable for Test cricketers to ‘tell tales out of school’, Graham Thorpe particularly crictical on this point. It is true that Sri Lanka have been rather hyper-critical of their opponents’ every verbal slip in recent years, so that dismissed batsmen returning to their changing-rooms are as likely to pray for thick walls as better luck, but the notion that nothing said on the field should pass beyond the boundary does rather reduce the game to the sort of public school silliness which sets back its image the odd 150 years or so. It didn’t help much that Muralitharan, after losing his off bail to a turning delivery from Giles, stood there as if awaiting a stumping decision until Vaughan sensibly, but perhaps not entirely in accordance with the playing conditions, persuaded the bewildered umpires to call for a TV replay. Neither side was happy with the other’s behaviour and the danger of a repeat of the bad blood between these sides three years ago could hardly have been clearer.
While all this was brewing up in the pavilion, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan were making hay while the sun shone on England and Muralitharan waited to be called into the attack. A stand of 89 runs in 18 overs was just the sort of positive start the tourists needed, but that sort of momentum was never likely to be maintained once the demon spinner began his spell. A straightforward bat-pad catch brought the end of Trescothick for 36, then three overs later Mark Butcher did a quick-step down the wicket to Kumar Dharmasena, missed and soft-shoe-shuffled it back to the hutch. Vaughan, having brought up a fine fifty, then edged a beauty of a leg-break from Murali and Hussain was trapped lbw by Vaas to leave Thorpe and Collingwood at the crease without a run on the board between them.
Fortunately for England, these two batsmen have shown greater technique and concentration against the turning ball than most of their colleagues on this tour. Neither showed any real sign of being able to pick Muralitharan’s new leg-break, Thorpe sometimes moved outside off-stump to allow for the spin, only to see the ball turn past his right hip, but both played late, with soft hands and looked admirably calm for all the pressure upon them. They lasted 25 overs to take England to 163 for 4 by the close and had moved the score on to 177 the following morning when Vaas moved a fine delivery across Collingwood, a thin edge carrying through to Sangakkara behind the stumps.
Andrew Flintoff had clearly decided to hit his way out of his discomfort against the spinners and one sumptuous back foot drive through extra cover suggested it might work. A miscued pull which fell just short of mid-on hinted at the falseness of such hopes and the two other thumping blows struck by the big Lancastrian over mid-off and mid-on came off the pace of Vaas. He had made just 16 when he came down the wicket at Murali, aimed a massive, head-in-air blow and got an inside edge into his pad and onto his stumps. Flintoff’s bat has caused some damage in this series, but sadly for him it’s the one he gave to Murali last summer. Chris Read soon followed, overbalancing trying to sweep Jayasuriya and judged lbw, despite perhaps having been hit a fraction outside the line. Thorpe added 51 with the stubborn Batty, moving to a painstaking four-hour fifty before a bit of Murali magic did for him.
A shortish off-break allowed Thorpe to rock back and cut through cover point for four. Murali wandered back to his mark playing up the tiredness and frustration, the furrowed brow, the shaking head. The next ball looked identical in line and length and Thorpe moved into the same position, only to find the ball zipping back into his pads, hitting him of the knee in front of middle and leg. The huge appeal was answered without delay but Thorpe stood there a good while longer, his eyes cast down at his feet as if wondering how on earth they’d got in such a tangle.
Batty and Giles hung around long enough to take England to 294, but a lead of 88 for the home side offered England the prospect of another battle to avoid defeat on the final day. Having missed out thanks to stiff English resistance and bad weather in Galle, you would have thought that Sri Lanka would have been determined to avoid any chance of a repetition here. In the light of what followed, their decision to come off for bad light 55 minutes early with the score 39 for 1 was a regrettable one. When Kirtley removed Jayasuriya’s off-stump early on the fourth morning and Sangakkara quickly fell to a bat-pad catch off Giles, it looked to have backfired completely.
But again the partnership between Jayawardene and Dilshan proved the backbone of the Sri Lankan innings. If Dilshan’s first innings fifty was a breath of fresh air in a dour series, his hundred in the second was a full-blown gale. Rarely can a tight series have seen such a joyous, free-flowing display of strokemaking and swift footwork, as thirteen fours and a six flowed from his bat. Jayawardene played a solid back-up role in a stand worth 153 which finally provided this beautiful ground with cricket worthy of its setting. It was a tired and perhaps over-elated Dilshan who came down the wicket at Batty having just brought up his century and was comfortably stumped by Read. But by now, Sri Lanka’s lead was nearing 300, surely enough runs to make them safe and plenty of time to bowl England out.
In the end, England were left to make 368 to win and 140 overs to survive. In the 36 overs possible before the light closed in on the fourth evening, they managed to lose their first two wickets, Trescothick edging a wild slash off Vaas to slip for 14, Butcher stumped pushing forward to Murali, convinced, wrongly, that his foot was firmly anchored behind the popping crease. Hussain fell early on the fifth morning, caught behind off Vaas for 17, but that marked the last moment when Sri Lanka were really in charge.
Sri Lanka’s coach, former Aussie opener John Dyson, later criticised England for making no attempt to go for the victory. But on day five on a Sri Lankan wicket, with the constant lurking threat of Muralitharan and three wickets already lost, this was never going to be anything other than a battle for survival, a battle whose success was every bit as impressive as the win would have been. Perhaps, had Trescothick still been at the crease for the majority of the day, or had Flintoff finally come good against the spinners, the story might have been a more glorious one for England. But that is not to take anything away from a performance which showed the whole world that England under Michael Vaughan are a tough nut to crack.
It was Vaughan who led the way with an innings totally unrecognisable from those he played in Australia a year ago. It was more characteristic of his predecessor as captain and opener, Michael Atherton, the man whom he was initially thought to be a like-for-like replacement for. Vaughan has always been renowned for his powers of concentration, but it was especially pleasing to see him add this new element of out and out defence to his game, one more step on the road to his becoming the model Test batsman.
Great support came again from Thorpe and Collingwood. Thorpe, having survived a few close calls, was unlucky to be given out caught behind for 41 when the ball brushed his shirt. Collingwood added a few more column inches to his growing reputation as a doughty competitor with a gutsy innings of 24. Flintoff looked positive again, but fell lbw playing back to Murali for 19, but England still looked in with a chance as long as Vaughan was there. Having brought up his hundred in faultless fashion, he was finally caught out by yet another superb leg-break from Muralitharan for 105. It was the breakthrough Sri Lanka had been begging for. England had just three wickets left, and 25 overs still to negotiate.
Now, at last, Tillekeratne went all-out for the win. Having had men stationed on the boundary all day, he finally crowded the bat with close fielders and piled on the pressure. It was too late. Although England still had a long way to go, Vaughan’s innings had given them a glimmer of hope. Read and Batty, two of the toughest young cricketers produced by England (with a little help from RW Marsh) in recent years stood firm depsite the continued brilliance of the tireless Murali. Whatever the Sri Lankans tried, they just wouldn’t budge. The home team kept plugging away, taking the match to the very last over in the hope of a Murali miracle, but the two young tyros stayed there until the end, walking off to a hero’s reception from their team mates and a grateful barmy army.
For Read in particular it was a gratifying performance. Having showed little form with the bat in this series so far, murmurings were already beginning that he ought to make way for the more solid batting of Geraint Jones, for all his brilliance behind the stumps. Batty too will have been glad to see it through to the end, after the unholy heave which ended his fine innings at Galle. Both should keep their places for the final Test in Colombo on Thursday, but England may have to find some way of adding another seamer to their attack if they are to come away from this series with more than a 0-0 result. Sadly, the excellent Collingwood may be the one to make way.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, will be reflecting hard on their experiences in the first two Tests. Despite all the odds in their favour, home turf, winning the toss twice, a fully fit Murali and an opposition struggling with a depleted seam attack, they have yet to land the knock-out blow. A third chance will be hoped for at Colombo, but they will be only too aware that if Vaughan can win the toss at last, the tables may well be turned. Worryingly, in a series of three back-to-back Tests, their key bowler arrived at Kandy with an ice-pack on his shoulder and ended up bowling 96 overs in the match. How long he can keep up that sort of work rate is anybody’s guess.
Sri Lanka 382 (Dilshan 63, Fernando 51*, Giles 5-116) & 279-7 dec. (Dilshan 100, Jayawardene 52)
England 294 (Thorpe 57, Vaughan 52, Muralitharan 4-60, Vaas 4-77) & 285-7 (Vaughan 105, Thorpe 41, Muralitharan 4-64)
Man of the Match
After the one-sided formalities of Bangladesh, it was always likely that the more formidable challenges of Sri Lanka would produce something more akin to a true Test cricket contest for the English tourists. But the thrilling first match of the series, played out in steamy heat on a dusty, turning Galle wicket, suggests that this three-match battle could turn out to be one of the most memorably fierce and entertaining Test series in recent years.
Battling against the odds and against a fully fit and highly motivated Muttiah Muralitharan, England were made to struggle against opponents fired up by their last two series defeats at English hands. They were always on the wrong end of the game, but ultimately a combination of poor weather, Sri Lankan diffidence and sheer dogged resistance helped them save the match and set up the prospect of two almighty battles in the forthcoming Tests at Kandy and Colombo.
Even before they turned up on the first morning, the odds were stacked against England. The difficulties of playing cricket in the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka are well recorded, but for England they had been exacerbated by the scheduling of this tour for the end of the monsoon season and the consequent disruption of their practice schedule by persistent rain. Official sources have protested that recent weather patterns suggested there was a high likelihood of the tour proceeding in clear, dry weather, but most locals talk of monsoon rains generally being expected until the end of the second week in December. Poor scheduling or not, England’s preparation had been virtually wiped out by the lingering wet season - one humiliating one-day defeat excepted - and they candidly admitted coming into this match distinctly undercooked. The last thing they needed was two further blows on the first morning; firstly the loss to a viral illness of their senior batsman Nasser Hussain, his absence granting a long awaited debut to Durham’s Paul Collingwood, and secondly the loss of the toss on a pitch renowned for deterioration and substantial spin.
It was always going to be an uphill struggle for the Englishmen, but they showed plenty of fight with a determined display on a first day during which 30 overs were lost to rain. Little impact was made by a new-ball attack lacking Gough, Caddick, Harmison and Anderson. Matthew Hoggard’s well pitched-up swingers are always likely to be expensive when he is not taking wickets, while Richard Johnson was clearly going to find greater resistance from Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya than his previous victims from Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, but Andrew Flintoff quickly established his usual measure of control and the spin of Ashley Giles and Gareth Batty enabled England to feel fairly pleased with their first day’s work.
Flintoff claimed the first wicket, Atapattu gloving an attempted pull down the leg-side to Chris Read, but Sri Lanka were still cruising pleasantly at 83 for 1 when Giles came into the attack. The last few months have not been kind to the Warwickshire left-armer, frustrated by limited returns last summer, annoyed when the BBC’s Henry Blofeld described him approaching the crease after his achilles injury like a creaky old ‘wheely-bin’, embarrassed after a misprinted promotional mug dubbed him the ‘King of Spain’, he took further stick when he tinkered with his action in Bangladesh with no noticable improvement in results and even here suffered the slight snub of seeing his junior partner Batty introduced into the attack before him. But after all the heartache and hard work, at last Giles was to receive the pay-off in the form of his best game for England since he last played in Sri Lanka three years ago.
Giles will probably never have the most fluid of actions, but the substance of his recent alterations makes a good deal of sense. The arm is a little higher, the run-up significantly straighter, both measures designed to stop him drifting too wide of the crease when bowling around it and to drive over that vital front leg more convincingly. The results are not perfect, there were times, particularly on day 2, when the arm dropped a fraction and the ball skidded off past Sangakkara’s leg-stump. Overall though, the new-look Giles was able to produce more loop and greater bite off a pitch offering more than enough bounce and turn for the spinners. At the other end, Batty, recovered from a swimming scare at the weekend when he was caught in a rip-tide, provided tight support, but it was Giles who did the damage, Jaysuriya falling to a sharp bat-pad catch from Collingwood for 48 before Mahela Jayawardene departed in similar fashion not long before the close. At 132-3, that would have represented a decent day’s work for England, but when Sri Lankan captain Hashan Tillekeratne went for a duck after edging an ill-judged cut off Giles it was real bonus time for the tourists.
Hopes of further quick inroads on day 2 however were thwarted by a prosperous fifth wicket stand of 70 between Kumar Sangakkara and the highly promising Thilan Samaraweera. Both used their feet well to Batty and Giles, Sangakkara confident enough to loft the ball over the infield on several occasions. Neither of England’s spinners had quite the control of the previous day, Batty too often dropping short and leaking runs square of the wicket. Samaraweera is not too familiar a name to most English spectators, but on the evidence of this innings it is one that will become increasingly well-known in years to come. He looked utterly at home in the Test Match atmosphere, while the balance and timing of his strokeplay was comparable to Atapattu or Jayawardene, two of the batsmen easiest on the eye in all world cricket.
Theirs was an attractive and crucial partnership which looked to have shifted the match back in Sri Lanka’s favour and never seemed troubled until England took the second new ball. Then, Sangakkara played back and across to a full-length swinging delivery from Johnson and was hit on the back leg in front of middle and off. This time there was more of a threat from England’s pace spearhead, Hoggard passing the bat more than once, but it wasn’t until Flintoff took over that the next breakthrough came, Samaraweera flashing at a wide long-hop and edging to Read. In Flintoff’s next over, he nipped one back a fraction to Chandana, who had reached 21 largely through point and gully, hitting him high on the pad and winning a slightly fortuitous lbw verdict from Daryl Harper.
At 239-7, Sri Lanka had been reined back in by the tourists. But another demonstration of how tough this series is likely to be came in the form of a stubborn eighth wicket stand between Kumar Dharmasena and Chaminda Vaas which added 40 precious runs before Batty returned to dismiss Dharmasena lbw. Debutant Dinusha Fernando didn’t last long, Collingwood snaffling his third catch of the innings at short-leg as Batty claimed a second wicket. Then, with the match very much in the balance, England’s noses were rubbed in it by a blistering innings of 38 from Muralitharan.
Each generation of cricketers has its comedy tailender, Sri Lanka’s spin wizard seems to have inherited that mantle from the likes of Courtney Walsh and Devon Malcolm. There was no great method to his hitting, unless the heave aimed over mid-off which slices over the keeper’s head for four and eventually caused aughan to send Marcus Trescothick down to long-stop was something he had practiced assiduously in the nets, but it was effective and good fun. Judging from the cheers of the home supporters and the broken-toothed smile which kept emerging from behing the helmet grille almost everyone found it thoroughly enjoyable too, except perhaps for eleven comparatively pale-skinned young men wilting beneath blue caps and floppy sun-hats.
Muralitharan’s downfall eventually came when he realised what he was achieving and started to try and bat properly, the result being a string of dot balls culminating in a catch to the keeper off Giles. That ended the innnings on a slightly above par score of 331 and left England with 37 overs that day in which to make headway towards it. The start was typically breezy, Trescothick hitting confidently through the off-side, Vaughan pulling Fernando’s first ball in Test cricket for four the straight driving his second for another boundary. Both appeared to have settled by the time Muralitharan came into the attack, but just how much any batsman is ever truly in against a bowler of his class is open to question.
England have won both their last two Test series against Sri Lanka, but in both they have had the distinct advantage of Muralitharan being no more than half-fit. This time his fitness is beyond question, as is his appetite for revenge against the Englishmen who claimed to have mastered him or worked him out on their last trip here. Questions about the validity of his action still abound, but the genius of the man cannot be denied and here it was displayed to a degree which left even seasoned observers stunned and breathless. How unsettling it must be for a batsman, to see that wiry arm whipping over in a blur of fingers, ball, wrist and elbow, all of which seem to be moving in twenty directions at once. The arm seemed to be coming over faster than ever, but with no loss of loop while the bouncy, turning pitch could well have been designed for him. In fact, it surely was.
There was an element of good fortune about the first wicket, Trescothick adjudged caught behind as he pushed forward at a fizzing off-break. There was no visible edge and Sangkakara seemed to go up for the catch a little late. But no such doubts attached to his second. It takes a great bowler to make a great batsman look a fool, and a case in point came when Vaughan was bowled through his legs as he thrust out a pad side of off-stump. Butcher and Thorpe hung on until the close, but it was clear that England would have their work cut out to get near Sri Lanka’s first innings total.
Good fortune was mixed in equal parts with good judgement in the 45 runs the two Surrey left-handers added on the third morning, but their luck ran out when Vaas came on and trapped Thorpe lbw for 43. Then came carnage. Collingwood came in for his first Test innings and quickly turned the ball to square leg for a single. But that just got him down Muralitharan’s end where he stayed as if mired in rapidly drying cement for two painful overs. Despite his known leg-side bias, which should allow him to work singles off the off-spinner with the spin, he simply couldn’t pierce the field. Muralitharan teased and tortured him, then gave him the heavy paw-swipe with his new-model extra-spin ‘doosra’ which took the outside edge, clipped Sangakkara’s gloves and flew into the outstretched hand of Jayasuriya at slip.
Flintoff and Read were soon back in the hutch too, lbw and caught at silly point respectively. Butcher hung on long enough to reach one of the hardest 50s he’ll ever make, before finally cracking and edging an attempted cut off Jayasuriya. If the tail hadn’t wagged, Batty, Giles and Johnson all striking impressive blows off the lesser spinners while Muralitharan was rested, England would have been in real trouble. As it was, a final total of 235 left them well short of a competitive score on a pitch where batting last facing any sort of deficit was likely to be curtains.
The Sri Lankans looked to be in total control as they cruised to 72 for 1, losing only Jayasuriya who sliced Giles to slip where Trescothick had a serious juggle before pouching the catch. But one moment of madness swung the game a little way back towards England. Stroking Batty into the off-side, the ball deflecting off Collingwood at silly point, Atapattu called Sangakkara through for a run, despite the fact that Collingwood now obscured his view of the ball. He was about one third of the way up the pitch before he noticed what little distance the ball had made beyond Collingwood, then came the second call, the hesitation, the final decision to commit. It was too late, by now the ball was in Collingwood’s hand and the Durham man was swivelling and returning it in a flash to Read at the stumps leaving Sangakkara three feet short.
The blunder evidently upset Atapattu, for soon after he wandered down the wicket at Batty, played for turn that wasn’t there and was comfortably stumped. Tillekeratne then padded up to one from Batty which came straight on and hit him in front of off and when Giles quickly produced a beauty which turned and bounced to have Samaraweera held at slip, England were right back in it with the hosts 85 for 5. Still under 200 adrift, the tourists went to bed on day 3 still, just about, thinking of victory. By the end of day 4 they were thinking only about avoiding defeat, probably helped by a repeat of the downpour which ended play early and lasted long into the night.
This conclusive switch in the balance of power was achieved by an innings of masterly meticulousness by Mahela Jayawardene. Having made just two Test 50s in the previous 18 months, Jaywardene had been through the mill in much the same way as Ashley Giles. This match may prove something of a rebirth for both men. On a wicket now so dry and dusty that the merest breath of wind might have blown the whole surface into the sea, Jaywardene adopted an uncharacteristic, risk-free approach. The resulting display of soft-handed, hard-headed resistance was utterly faultless in both conception and execution. Good support came from Vaas and Chandana, both of whom were unlucky to be given out when facing Giles (neither Harper nor Venkat had a good game as umpire) and Muralitharan continued his contribution by notching 13 in a last wicket partnership worth 46.
In fact, it was only at this stage that any of the gloss came off Sri Lanka’s day. With a lead of beyond 250 and rain in the air, it was surprising to see so little urgency from the last wicket pair. They seemed content to grind the innings out to its natural conclusion irrespective of how long it took. The target which England were obliged to chase as a result was a formidable one, 323, well beyond anything achieved in a Test match at this ground. But the potential bowling time lost must surely have had a crucial influence on the outcome of the game. It may well be a passage of play that captain Tillekeratne will regret.
If England were praying for rain, their prayers went unanswered. They had managed only one over of their reply the previous evening before the heavens opened, not much more time had elapsed on the fifth morning before their first wicket fell, Vaughan edging a drive off Fernando to slip. Trescothick continued to play positively and Butcher showed a much improved technique against spin and England looked to be proceeding nicely enough until Trescothick had a brainstorm and charged down the pitch at Jayasuriya and was bowled through the gate. Thorpe’s brief innings had all the appearance of a psychotic episode, the stroke selection erratic, the mood distracted and skittish. The shot which ended it, a leg-side heave skied to mid-on, was not pretty.
England’s three most crucial wickets had fallen and it wasn’t even lunch yet. But if all was lost, no-one told Butcher and Collingwood. Learning something from the application of Jayawardene, England’s last two specialist batsmen showed steely resolve to keep out everything Murali & co could throw at them. Butcher’s second fifty of the match was richly deserved, occupying as it did 167 vital minutes. Collingwood’s 174 minute vigil more than justified his first Test cap, even if it doesn’t save his place should Hussain be fit for the second Test.
After 28 overs of backs-to-the-wall resistance, it was that old partnership breaker Vaas who finally made the breakthrough, a tired prod from Butcher producing an edge behind the stumps. Flintoff fell quickly again, driving tentatively to gully. But Read managed to cling on with Collingwood for a further 45 minutes until Muralitharan snared him bat-pad, then Batty took his place with equal determination. Having reached a gutsy 36, Collingwood finally fell just before tea, Tillekeratne at silly pint taking another fine catch. Now it really did look hopeless. The last three wickets would have to battle on through the final session, with no senior batsman left to guide them.
But battle on they did, Batty and Giles showing tremendous spirit to keep the game alive while close fielders crowded the bat and piercing lbw appeals, some too close for comfort, ripped through the air with increasing frequency. Agonising minutes passed for the Sri Lankans during which it seemed that the crucial breakthrough might never come. England almost made it to the beginning of the final hour with its sweet hope of salvation, and then something in Gareth Batty’s brain went pop, the clinical strokeplay which had brought him two fours and a six went out of the window and he had a tremendous heave at Muralitharan, losing his bails and his mind in one crazy, fatal moment.
It wasn’t over yet, Johnson only made three, but those three occupied 41 minutes and took England tantalisingly close to safety. More delay, more local frustration, more anguished appeals, more bitten fingernails, until finally Johnson pushed forward, raising his bat to let Murali’s doosra go by but not getting it high enough and watching in horror as the ball cannonned onto his stumps. Exit Johnson, slow and despondent, enter Hoggard, slower still. In the world of comedy tailenders, Muralitharan may be at the Fawlty Towers end of the scale, Hoggard is more of a modern, prime-time BBC offering; very few laughs, but there for about half an hour. That would be good enough for England. Now every Sri Lankan fielder was around the bat, every ball the killer ball, every pause in play the cue for an umpires’ conference about the light. Seven balls and thirteen minutes and Hoggard hung on. Twenty minutes remained when Venkat and Harper came together again for something like the fourth time in as many overs. Heads were bowed in discussion, light meters raised to take readings from every angle, two batsmen peered expectantly at the officials, eleven fielders waited at their posts, praying for another chance, time hung in the air like the stench of stagnant water.
Then the decision came, the offer was made, the two Englishmen turned and walked from the field knowing they had achieved something remarkable. The Sri Lankans trudged wearily from the pitch, eyes to the heavens in hope of a sudden burst of sunlight. Within minutes, though, the rain had come and Muralitharan’s herculean 2nd innings efforts, 37-18-47-4, had been in vain.
In their last two series against Sri Lanka, England have got off to poor starts but pulled things around to emerge victorious. With a fully fit squad re-energised by this remarkable escape, they will hope to repeat the sequence at Kandy and Colombo. But with Muralitharan in this kind of form, pulling it off would be their greatest achievement yet.
Sri Lanka 331 (Sangakkara 71, Giles 4-69) & 226 (Jayawardene 86, Giles 4-63)
England 235 (Butcher 51, Muralitharan 7-46) & 210-9 (Butcher 54, Muralitharan 4-47)
Man of the Match