Match Report by Neil Robinson 07/06/2006
For followers of any sports team it is an easy mistake to ascribe both victory and defeat to the strengths and weaknesses of your own team. For journalists too, especially those whose efforts are confined to the matches of a given team, the trap is all too inviting. There were, undeniably, several faults in Englandís performance in the third Test at Trent Bridge, but ultimately what defeated them was one of the truly great bowling performances. Muttiah Muralitharan, on a dry and dusty pitch, with 325 runs to bowl at, was always going to be a testing proposition. More than that, he was irresistible.
Despite a secure opening partnership of 84 between Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, there was a feeling of inevitability about Englandís doomed run-chase. Trescothick, despite some fine shots, persisted in playing Murali off the back foot, and the genial Tamil quietly fed him some subtly hittable off-breaks, all the while waiting to spring the trap. When it came, the doosra turned like a Shane Warne leg-break and Trescothick, trapped on his crease, could do nothing to cover his stumps. Strauss hung around for another 45 minutes before edging to slip, but meanwhile the carnage began; Cook lbw to another doosra, Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff all snaffled at bat-pad. For a while, until Hoggard was smartly run out by the lively Kapugedera, it looked as if Murali might capture all ten, and defeat was now so inevitable that only the die-hard England fans would have begrudged it. He managed one more, trapping debutant Jon Lewis lbw, before the veteran Sanath Jayasuriya called a halt to a late flurry from Plunkett and Panesar to seal a 134 run win.
Much of the blame for Englandís defeat has been laid at the door of their bowlers for failing to finish off Sri Lankaís tail once again. Having reduced them to 139 for 8 in helpful conditions they again looked on helplessly as Chaminda Vaas comfortably cruised to 38 not out (en route to a series average of 98!) and the tourists recovered to 231. For once Hoggard was off colour, Flintoff was struggling with an ankle problem, and Plunkett, uncharacteristically, was all over the place. Jon Lewis, making his debut in place of Sajid Mahmood, bowled very well on the first morning when there was plenty of movement in the air and off the pitch, but as the weather dried up and the pitch flattened out he proved ineffective with the older ball. While Mahmood is far from the finished article, he surely would have offered more in these conditions. His exclusion appears to have been a gamble, and a misjudged one at that.
Englandís reply was also open to criticism. Too many of the batsmen got starts and failed to capitalise. But it is only fair to recognise that they were up against by far the most impressive collective bowling and fielding performance the Sri Lankans had displayed all summer. Collingwoodís 48 took almost four hours, and only the brilliant Pietersen was able to break the shackles, until he misjudged a sweep and scooped the ball into fine legís hands.
Then, taking a precious lead of 2 into their second innings, Sri Lanka proceeded to inch away from England by building partnership after partnership. With Flintoff clearly in pain, Englandís attack seemed completely toothless, save for Panesar who bowled magnificently for 37 overs. But even he could do little against the superb determination showed by Tharanga, Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Dilshan, Kapugedera (who played some extremely elegant shots through the off-side), Malinga and, yet again, Vaas. The anguish displayed by Sangakkara and Jayawardene when they were dismissed, showed just how much this meant to the Sri Lankans at the end of a tough series for them.
Panesar kept nagging away, and the Sri Lankans never got on top of him. Few of his deliveries span prodigiously, but there was enough there to encourage him and make it clear that if the target rose much above 200, England would struggle against the magic of Murali. The most impressive turn generated by an England bowler came from the two overs bowled by Kevin Pietersen, who seemed to spin it almost as much as Murali, with an action almost as eye-catching.
Long before the target of 325 was finalised, England seemed to have switched off. In truth it seems a long time since the hunger which typified their Ashes year has been on view. Perhaps it is the absence of so many key figures from that side, perhaps the inevitable come-down from last yearís high. Either way the team needs to rediscover its spark quickly or it could end this summer with a string of bad results and head for the next Ashes series, and the World Cup beyond, in poor shape.
Perhaps the real triumph in this match was that of Sri Lankaís young batsmen, who finally showed that they could graft their way to a total in conditions alien to them. Or their fielders, who backed their bowlers to the hilt. But the plaudits will of course go to Muralitharan, perhaps playing his last Test match in England, for his match figures of 11-132. Maybe Englandís batsmen wonít be sorry to see the back of him, but Sri Lanka should enjoy him while they can. His like does not come around very often.
Sri Lanka 231 & 322 (Sangakkara 66, Kapugedera 50, Panesar 5-78)
England 229 & 190 (Strauss 55, Muralitharan 8-70)
Sri Lanka won by 134 runs.
Series tied 1-1.
Man of the Match