A draw far from boring

TED CORBETT

THE draw is a rarity for both Sri Lanka and England, there have only been two in nine Tests at Galle International Stadium and the first Test was set up for a win inspired by the bowling of Muttiah Muralitharan, who must be more at home on this ground than anywhere else in the world.

Sri Lankan players having a word with the umpires after the match was abandoned owing to bad light on the fifth and final day of the first Test match against England. — Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

Yet, we should be grateful. This draw was far from boring. Instead it was gripping and exciting and so full of drama that you would have had to be a stone-hearted man, even if you were a neutral, not to have been carried along by all that happened in the final hour.

It certainly got to the umpires. In fact I would go so far as to say that the pair — Srinivas Venkataraghavan from India and Daryl Harper from Australia — played a major part in the draw. Not that I am complaining.

They rightly held the balance of power between Sri Lanka who were trying to get in as many overs as possible and England whose tactics included long chats in the middle, the unnecessary arrival of James Kirtley with towel and drink — it was the coolest part of the coolest day of the five — and a refusal to be bullied into taking guard before they wanted.

As for the men in the white coats: why did they find it necessary to pay such attention to the light for so long when, so far as I could judge from some distance away, it was perfectly playable?

It was certainly far brighter than that famous evening in Karachi when England — in a completely different situation of course — batted on to victory. As I have said before some counties would never start matches if the light that was so subjected to the umpires' meters on this evening was considered too poor for cricket in England.

But these are nit-picking remarks. The tension as Sri Lanka tried to unseat the final England batsmen would have been a fine climax to any Test.

The courage of Mark Butcher, Paul Collingwood and Ashley Giles in particular and the support they received from the lower order team-mates was a fine example of battling cricket at its best.

And when the rains began to fall with no more than four overs left for play the clearly disappointed Sri Lankans lingered a while with the umpires in the hope of another over, another ball even, so that they could turn nine wickets down into victory.

But when that was impossible they accepted what fate had flung at them with good grace. Hashan Tillekeratne, a new captain if he is a veteran Test player, made no complaints. It is the way cricket has been played down all the years and sometimes, in the face of adversity, it is the only way it can continue with dignity.

Muttiah Muralitharan celebrates with captain Hashan Tillekeratne after taking the wicket of England's Richard Johnson in the second innings. Muralitharan had match figures of 11 for 93. — Pic. REUTERS-

There is still plenty of room in the game for saying Que Sera Sera as Doris Day sang it and heading off to the next match. Winning and losing are important but there are times when you have to accept that fate is not on your side.

The Sri Lankans will argue forever that two crucial lbw decisions went against them in the final session and that they were a large number of runs to the good and that the gods should have been on their side since they had dominated the game from day one.

But this result shows what can be achieved despite rain for at the end only 12 of the 450 overs scheduled had not been bowled and on the last afternoon Sri Lanka were rattling off 18 overs an hour in their attempt to get their reward.

I wish they had triumphed but I think in the end a sort of justice prevailed.

The game began with a shock when Nasser Hussain, who had been expected to be a major fighter in the battle to counteract Murali, declared himself unfit with a viral infection. That meant that Collingwood made his debut; one he will never forget for his snatched catches at short leg and his final afternoon at the crease.

It seems that Michael Vaughan, the England captain, could not win the toss with a two-headed penny at the moment and Sri Lanka chose to bat, first to give themselves the best of the pitch and secondly to allow Murali maximum use of a wearing wicket.

Ashley Giles was impressive, taking four wickets in each innings. Here he exults after dismissing Sanath Jayasuriya in the first innings. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

Intelligent and disciplined English bowling prevented them taking advantage and after the match Murali was critical of his own batsmen for failing to make the 400-450 that he said would have finished the match a day early. "We played tense cricket," said the off-spinner who made 39 important runs in the first innings and 13 in the second. "We didn't play freely and go for our shots."

As a result Sri Lanka made only 331 — and slowly at that — and allowed Ashley Giles, the slow left-arm bowler, to take four wickets and defend. Kumara Sangakkara batted 210 minutes for 71 and all the batsmen except Tillekeratne got a start but 331 is not the score from which quick victories are made.

Butcher led the England response but it was the tail-enders who took the score from 151 for five to 235 who kept their side in the fight. Giles made 18 to add to his list of consistent scores that have made Vaughan treasure him as a reliable professional cricketer and lusty blows from Richard Johnson, the fast bowler, meant that a deficit of 150 was reduced to 96.

All eyes were on Murali, of course. He had the wickets of the opening pair in his pocket with 67 on the board and he finished with seven for 46 to add to the 60 victims he has in his locker in the previous eight Tests at Galle.

When he finished with 11 for 93 it was his 12th haul of 10 or more wickets in Tests and to be fair to him he did not bowl at his best in the second innings.

Mahela Jayawardene attempts a sweep shot during his unbeaten 86 in the Lankan second innings. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

That is Sri Lanka's problem. Murali is expected to take wickets even by the other bowlers in his side. It is possible that mentally they do not push as hard as they might. They may feel that it is his right to have all the scalps and that they must stand back and allow him to carry off the honours.

So on those rare occasions when he is below his best there is no one — save Chaminda Vaas who was not bowling on a pitch that helped him — to take charge. No doubt there have been times when Australia felt the same way about Shane Warne. It is not a problem that is easy to solve.

We had expected Sri Lanka to blaze away and declare with a lead big enough for Murali's tricks to work but their runs were built around a 311-minute innings from Mahela Jayawardene who finished undefeated on 86. Giles picked off another four wickets but England bowled poorly on the fourth day and we were sure a Sri Lankan victory was a formality.

Half way through the game I met Jack Birkenshaw, in Sri Lanka with a party of cricket fans, but still in his middle sixties, one of the shrewdest judges of player and situations within the game. "I like this lad Collingwood," he said. "He's tough and I like that in a batsman."

His words were amply proven on the final day. Collingwood batted for three hours for 36 and his stand of 52 — more to the point absorbing 89 minutes of precious Sri Lankan time — was the base from which England saved the match.

Mark Butcher pulls the ball to the fence as Sri Lankan wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara looks on in England's first essay. Butcher was in fine nick and got a half century in each innings. — Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

Watching, his face set grim as if he had a bad hand at poker, was Duncan Fletcher, the England coach. I suspect he obtained a deep satisfaction from the result since it was a tribute to one of the ways in which he has brought out the best in this limited England side.

Once again the tail saved the day. From Chris Read, a talented wicket-keeper, but still unsure of his batting, they stayed at the crease for 53 overs and even Johnson, who made only three, hung on for 41 minutes.

No coach can expect heaps of runs from his tail-enders but in these two innings each one of the last five batsmen made a contribution of sorts.

Chris Read effects a smart stumping to dismiss Marvan Atapattu off Gareth Batty in Sri Lanka's second innings. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

The old Yorkshire sides, the triumphant West Indies teams, the Aussies had it in common. They did not expect their lower-order batsmen to make runs when the proper batsmen had succeeded but every so often they wanted them to bat to their average.

I once saw West Indies at the nets. Joel Garner made it clear that he did not want to bat until Clive Lloyd turn on him. "Get in that net, Bird," he ordered. "You did not come on this trip just to bowl a few overs."

Somewhere along the line Fletcher must have said something similar to Read and the rest and in the last session of this match it gave England a draw against all the odds.