Butter-finger syndrome

Mahela Jayawardene, the stand-in captain for Marvan Atapattu, has dignity, FIGHTING SPIRIT and a band of happy cricketers around him. That is the reason he was able to convince them the game was not lost and they responded magnificently, writes TED CORBETT.

Two branches of our game have grown beyond recognition in the past few years. Round every corner in Pakistan and India this winter were security men. Perfectly nice guys off duty, always ready for a chat, plenty of laughs and, of course, so fit they could run marathons as a training routine.

When they were on duty you had better back off. There was always one of them with a player at a press conference and they seemed to catch any number of idle people gawping at their heroes and hustle them out of the way.

Coaches form the other growing force in the game. Like the security men they have a basic job to fulfil by ensuring the players are fit, properly trained and ready for action on the day. Fine, except they want to leave their mark to the extent that I find myself agreeing with Ian Chappell who has said that in his day a coach was the vehicle that took the team from the hotel to the ground and back. His unspoken thought is that things were better that way.

Springing from such coaches — beginning with Bobby Simpson, Mickey Stewart and Bob Woolmer only 20 years ago — have come ideas outside the loop as they attempted to justify their existence. What else would you expect? Which brings me to Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, who apparently believes that fielders should learn to catch by first dropping the ball and then going for the rebound.

England practised such manoeuvres last summer and we saw the outcome in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord's.

In other times not too long ago we might have wondered if there was some sort of fix in operation but unless I read the character of the men involved wrongly that suggestion is right out of order.

England began by making 551 for five and declared at just the right moment so that in the next 30 overs of the second day six wickets fell. England's match right! Probably by the end of the third day or the start of the fourth.

It did not happen because in the next three days England dropped a total of nine catches. Great fielders like Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood put down simple chances so that — with a little help from bad light and rain and a couple of dodgy umpiring decisions — Sri Lanka got away with a draw.

Afterwards one of their journalists taught me two Sinhala words for a great escape. "Palayama" means getting rid of your enemy and running away to a safe place and "galaweema" means getting off the hook.

Those two words must have had a lot of use in the Sri Lanka dressing room on the final day as their tailend lost only three wickets and the catches continued to fall more rapidly than the rain.

I will say no more about the training methods that include dropping chances and trying to pick up the scraps except that if it is still continuing coach Fletcher ought to be persuaded by someone like David Graveney, the chairman of the selectors, that it is time to stop.

There were other reasons for England failing to win this match. "We would have won if we had held our catches. I don't know why it happened," said Flintoff, England's captain, afterwards, trying for a laugh to cover his embarrassment, "but it's catching!"

Among the other reasons was the ability of the Sri Lanka lower order men to keep their bats out of the way of the swinging ball and not playing at anything wide of off-stump

There was also the comparative weakness of the England attack — without Steve Harmison, Ashley Giles, James Anderson and Simon Jones, a formidable pack in themselves — and the pressure their absence put on Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard.

Flintoff was forced to bowl 51 overs in that protracted second innings, which is bound to affect his fitness. Let us look on the bright side. It is impossible to talk about any England attack nowadays without saying something complimentary about Hoggard. He snapped up his 200th Test wicket in this game to become the 10th highest wicket-taker among all those who have toiled for England, but more to the point he rarely bowls badly and he is a fine example of what can be done by swinging the ball away at pace on the line of the off-stump.

At the moment no more than lip service is paid to this art form. It may be long after Hoggard retires when we recognise what a thing of beauty we saw.

Harmison and Flintoff take their wickets with more spectacular deliveries, knock stumps out of the ground and force batsmen to duck and dive. But if you want to see what can be achieved by orthodox means study the Hoggard technique from the hitch kick in the middle of his run to the time the ball pitches on a perfect length around off-stump. Nothing complicated. Line and length at 85 miles an hour with a touch of outswing. Mahela Jayawardene has more to offer as well. He has not had an easy time after the death of his brother, he is here as a stand-in for Marvan Atapattu and in the background there are all the arguments over the former captain Sanath Jayasuriya who joined the party during this Test.

Yet he has dignity, fighting spirit and a band of happy cricketers around him. That is the reason he was able to convince them the game was not lost and they responded magnificently.

If ever England can restore the team that won back the Ashes they will ride roughshod over Sri Lanka and probably deal just as competently with Pakistan in the second half of the summer.

This era is tinged with English gold. One of the good things to arise from the succession of injuries is the discovery that there are young men of ability out in the counties.

Sajid Mahmood has pace, Alastair Cook can accumulate runs and impose himself on an attack in a way that eluded Ian Bell and, for all he became a figure of fun when he fielded, Monty Panesar might be a match-winner one day.

But is Flintoff the right captain? Only if he can bowl less, only if his fielders can hold their catches, only if he is not expected to be all things to all men and smile when the day is long and the odds are stacked against him.

I wish him well but more fervently I wish Michael Vaughan a full recovery so that he can stand at mid-off as he once did and pull the strings more effectively than any captain in the world.