Eventful till the very end

Sanath Jayasuriya, who announced his retirement from Tests, gets a peck from an ardent fan.-AP

The match had a large slice of everything an enthusiast might ask: calamity, controversy, cricket good and bad, and in the end catastrophe for England after it appeared they had an easy route to success. Ted Corbett reports.

I appreciate Geoff Boycott’s motives in advocating four-day Tests but I think he might have changed his mind if he had been in Kandy for the opening clash between England and Sri Lanka.

It was one of the great matches, beginning with a pathetic first innings by the Sri Lankans, which suggested they might collapse as they had twice in Australia earlier, and ending with their victory, a sharp contrast with the two defeats in Australia.

But that was not all there was to this magnificent Test.

We also had a three-day festival of Muttiah Muralitharan’s delights, his world aggregate wicket record and the change of direction so that Sri Lanka set up the final day for a victory that would celebrate the achievements of Murali and Kumar Sangakkara.

Instead of any easy victory, after England had been set 350, we had a prolonged fight; a dog fight perhaps since one of the street dogs invaded the pitch and actually sat down to admire the battle.

She may have noticed a moment when it looked as if Michael Vaughan, the England captain, might order a charge for victory and finally, after he had bowled more than 30 overs without taking a wicket, three victims for Murali — with the new ball, if you please.

One of the late wickets fell to an lbw decision so appalling that it ought to set some kind of record. Ryan Sidebottom was no more out than he was right-handed since the ball cannoned into his pads from an inside edge.

However, before you start saying the gods had conspired to defraud England — the two excellent Pakistani umpires certainly had not — remember that the previous evening, the nightwatchman James Anderson was plumb lbw and given not out.

So this match had a large slice of everything an enthusiast might ask: calamity, controversy, cricket good and bad, and in the end catastrophe for England after it appeared they had an easy route to success.

A dire start by the eventual winners, Murali’s record, Sangakkara’s aggregate total and his 16th century, including one against every Test-playing country and, for those of a sentimental turn of mind, the retirement of Sanath Jayasuriya, whose work in the last 10 years has helped turn the little guys into giants.

Sanath, cheered to the echo on the final day, even for the simple act of fielding a ball and returning it, will be missed and not just by the fans.

It all went to prove that there is room for four-day Tests but there is much more room for games as full of twists and turns as this exceptional match-up between two equal sides.

Murali’s record attempt threatened to take over the game days before it began but there was also the batting of Sangakkara, with an innings of 152, his fourth score of 150-plus in successive Tests, and 92, almost half the Sri Lankan first innings score. They were the superstar performances but just below that exalted level there was the bowling of Chaminda Vaas, sending down the ball at only just above 80 miles an hour but using his brain and challenging the batsmen ball by ball.

Finally there was the wicket-keeping of Prasanna Jayawardene; precise, cool, quick and admired by one of the greats.

I spent the fifth morning of the game with Bob Taylor, an old friend and about the finest ’keeper you will ever see.

He showed me his 62-year-old hands which may be slightly gnarled but which contain not a single broken finger; the outward sign of a skill which his former captain Brian Bolus once told me meant that “if Bob ever dropped a ball of any sort, we talked about nothing else for a week.”

Bob loves a conversation — indeed his nickname is Chat — but he interrupted his own flow to say: “This lad can keep wicket, can’t he?” and go into raptures about his handling and his outstanding footwork. Stars like Bob don’t waste their time praising moderate talent so I reckon the new lad must have something special.

(By the way I was astonished to hear that Sangakkara did not want to step down from the job behind the stumps, reckoning Sri Lanka could not afford to be without an all-rounder, but his own big scores and Jayawardene’s keeping and batting appear to have done wonders for the team.)

As for Murali, what new is there to say? He may go on to pass the 1,000 mark, the record figure he leaves behind him may never be passed — particularly if there are four-day Tests, Geoffrey — and one day we may walk into the ground with his name in lights or certainly over the front of a pavilion.

No point in naming his major flaw, or asking if he is the greatest match-winner of all time. These definitions are not important; ICC have decreed that he does not throw and I am prepared to go along with that view.

It does not change my own opinion which I have often stated in these columns and we wait to see what is the effect on the next generation of young bowlers.

Meanwhile let us enjoy the skill, the results and the value to cricket.

As for England they have no reason to be ashamed of their performance although the tour selection panel must wonder if they should have preferred Steve Harmison to James Anderson.

The pitch was as flat as a plank of planed wood and with much less life but there were occasions when Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando wrenched life from it. How much more would Harmison have found with his extra height?

Still angered by the comments of their former coach Duncan Fletcher, the team showed a spirit which he did much to instil. It was a performance he would have admired, which that tough captain Nasser Hussain would have seen as admirable and which Michael Vaughan was right to defend.

He will know better than anyone that if Andrew Flintoff had been here instead of looking after his injuries although in the long run his enforced rest will serve England well. We must also wonder if Andrew Strauss, whose fall from grace has been so spectacular, might not have done better than Alastair Cook.

Cook is at an interesting point in his career. I wonder if he will be selected for the New Zealand trip in the New Year and it may be that a spell back in the Essex side might do him good and give Strauss the chance to re-establish himself especially as — however much you admire him — Vaughan must be on the stretch that ends in retirement.

Cook and Strauss sounds a likely pair to open; just as two more left-handers Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandort cement a similar partnership for Sri Lanka.

Interesting times ahead, are there not? THE SCORES

First Test, Asgiriya Stadium, Kandy, December 1-5. Sri Lanka won by 88 runs.

Sri Lanka — 1st innings: M. Vandort c Vaughan b Hoggard 8; S. Jayasuriya c Pietersen b Sidebottom 10; K. Sangakkara c Collingwood b Anderson 92; M. Jayawardene c Prior b Hoggard 1; C. Silva c Prior b Hoggard 2; J. Mubarak c Prior b Hoggard 0; P. Jayawardene c Cook b Panesar 51; C. Vaas b Panesar 12; D. Fernando c Vaughan b Panesar 0; L. Malinga (not out) 1; M. Muralitharan (run out) 1; Extras (lb-8, nb-2) 10. Total: 188.

Fall of wickets: 1-11, 2-29, 3-40, 4-42, 5-42, 6-148, 7-180, 8-182, 9-186.

England bowling: Sidebottom 15-1-58-1; Hoggard 14-3-29-4; Anderson 15.4-3-39-1; Bopara 1-0-8-0; Panesar 14-4-46-3.

England — 1st innings: A. Cook lbw b Vaas 0; M. Vaughan c Silva b Muralitharan 37; I. Bell c Silva b Muralitharan 83; K. Pietersen lbw b Muralitharan 31; P. Collingwood b Muralitharan 45; R. Bopara c P. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 8; M. Prior c Mubarak b Fernando 0; R. Sidebottom c P. Jayawardene b Malinga 31; M. Hoggard st. P. Jayawardene b Muralitharan 15; J. Anderson lbw b Vaas 9; M. Panesar (not out) 2; Extras (b-6, lb-1, w-2, nb-11) 20. Total: 281.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-107, 3-132, 4-170, 5-182, 6-185, 7-242, 8-266, 9-272.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 18.1-3-76-2; Malinga 20-2-86-1; Muralitharan 35-14-55-6; Jayasuriya 2-0-9-0; Fernando 18-2-48-1.

Sri Lanka — 2nd innings: M. Vandort c Bell b Anderson 49; S. Jayasuriya lbw b Hoggard 78; K. Sangakkara c Vaughan b Collingwood 152; M. Jayawardene c Prior b Hoggard 65; C. Silva lbw b Panesar 37; J. Mubarak c (sub) b Panesar 9; P. Jayawardene b Collingwood 20; C. Vaas (not out) 6; L. Malinga b Panesar 2; D. Fernando (not out) 9; Extras (b-5, lb-10) 15. Total (for eight wkts., decl.) 442.

Fall of wickets: 1-113, 2-166, 3-288, 4-359, 5-387, 6-423, 7-426, 8-429.

England bowling: Hoggard 18-5-55-2; Sidebottom 25-5-65-0; Panesar 45-5-132-3; Anderson 23-4-128-1; Bopara 8-3-16-0; Vaughan 3-0-6-0; Collingwood 8-0-25-2.

England — 2nd innings: A. Cook c Silva b Vaas 4; M. Vaughan c P. Jayawardene b Vaas 5; J. Anderson b Vaas 11; I. Bell b Muralitharan 74; K. Pietersen b Fernando 18; P. Collingwood c Sangakkara b Fernando 16; R. Bopara lbw b Jayasuriya 34; M. Prior b Muralitharan 63; R. Sidebottom lbw b Muralitharan 1; M. Hoggard b Malinga 8; M. Panesar (not out) 2; Extras (b-5, lb-9, nb-11) 25. Total: 261.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-22, 3-27, 4-55, 5-90, 6-139, 7-248, 8-249, 9-253.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 17-3-56-3; Malinga 15-3-39-1; Muralitharan 36-12-85-3; Jayasuriya 14-6-28-1; Fernando 12-1-39-2.