Sri Lanka v England, 3rd Test at Colombo - Match Report

Match Report by Neil Robinson 23/12/03

Those of us who suspected that a Sri Lankan side unable to take advantage of powerful positions in the first two Tests might find themselves under pressure, should they lose the toss in the deciding match at Colombo will be digesting large, pre-Christmas portions of humble pie this week.

Despite a rare win of the toss by England skipper Michael Vaughan, the hosts dominated the match from start to finish, inflicting upon the exhausted Englishmen their heaviest Test defeat in 30 years and their third largest ever. The margin of victory, an innings and 215 runs, did not flatter the Sri Lankans, who throughout the match bowled, batted and fielded with greater skill and ambition than the tourists who, playing their third Test in as many weeks, looked as if they harboured a secret longing for the grey, wintery skies of their homeland.

The poverty of ambition of which Sri Lankan coach John Dyson had accused the Englishmen after Kandy was again on display in the tourists team selection. Having taken the negative option of going into the second Test with the extra batsman, in seeking here to redress the balance of their side, they adopted the safety first approach of trusting to the experience and nous of Nasser Hussain over the high promise of Paul Collingwood. In doing so, they lost the services of one of their few batsmen to have displayed any idea of how to deal with the mysteries of Muttiah Muralitharan, a useful back-up bowler and the best fielder available to them, in exchange for a man short of form and time in the middle, whose best years are probably behind him. It was a decision entirely predictable to anyone who has observed the negative mindset of English cricket in recent years amd correspondingly depressing. Neither Hussain nor James Anderson, the extra bowler selected, had a match he will wish to remember.

All began well for England on day 1. The toss won, the skies fair and a pitch both flat and offering more pace and bounce than expected saw the openers streak ahead to a partnership of 78, the bulk of the runs coming from the confident Trescothick, before Vaughan edged Chandana to slip. Butcher added 30 with Trescothick in some style before Trescothick became Muralitharan’s first victim of the match for an entertaining 70 just before lunch. But after the break it was all downhill for the tourists. Butcher edged Dilhara Fernando to the keeper, Hussain, looking less than assured against the spin, got a poor lbw decision against Vaas and when Thorpe was trapped in front by Murali, England had slumped from 108-1 to 139-5.

This left Batty, promoted to number 7, to hang around while Flintoff pummelled a brave 70, watching the ball more carefully than in previous outings against the spinners. Batty eventually holed out to Atapattu at deep -midwicket, the Sri Lankan opener splitting the webbing in his hand and playing no further part in the match. Flintoff impressive innings came to and end for 77, tamely driving the ball in the air back to Murali off the back foot. There was brief resistance from Read and Giles until an horrendous mix-up left Giles stranded halfway up the wicket before the innings fell away early on day 2 for just 265. On a belter of a pitch, it was clearly an inadequate total.

The weaknesses of the English bowling attack had always been the team’s likeliest point of vulnerability coming into this series. Hard work and negative Sri Lankan batting had kept this weakness largely concealed in the first two Tests. But here, Kirtley and Anderson showed little threat with the new ball, which the hosts countered easily despite having to promote Kumar Sangakkara to an opening slot in place of Atapattu. The makeshift opener and the over-the-hill veteran blasted the English bowling to the tune of 7 per over through the remainder of the session, refusing to be cowed even when the hitherto economical spin of Ashley Giles was introduced into the attack. Jayasuriya said later that he had deliberately decided to take Giles on, since the Warwickshire left-armer had bowled so well up to this point in the series and had been England’s only real danger-man. He unleashed a brutal assault, using his feet to force Giles to alter his length, crashing anything vaguely short to the sqaure boundaries, lofting the ball boldly over the infield.

Sangakkara had fallen at slip to Kirtley (a fine catch by Trescothick) for 31, but by the time Jayasuriya followed him for 85, edging Flintoff to give Trescothick his second catch of the innings, Sri Lanka were halfway to England’s total in next to no time. The momentum of the series had, at last, moved conclusively in Sri Lanka’s favour. The partnership which followed between Thilan Samaraweera and Mahela Jayawardene was to turn that momentum into an unbeatable advantage. 262 runs were added in the largest ever Sri Lankan partnership against England. By the time they were separated, almost 24 hours had passed since England’s last wicket. By then, it felt like that in playing time as well.

England might have had an easier time had their bowling been backed up by some halfway decent catching. Sadly, Trescothick’s two early slip catches were to be his only good moments in the rest of the innings. Of those catches he has pouched on this tour, few have come cleanly and another four were to be spilled by him in this innings alone. Not one of them could have been described as challenging. Flintoff, as usual, was the unluckiest of the bowlers, but Batty also suffered one dreadful drop by Trescothick and a rather poor negative response from umpire Aleem Dar to an lbw shout which looked plumb.

Better England attacks than this one have toiled whole days in the field for no reward, the Willis, Botham, Underwood axis which failed to part Viswanath and Vengsarkar all day in India back in 1981-82 springs to mind for one, but it was particularly sad that this team, so lacking in experience and inspiration, should still create chances on such a flat pitch and yet not take them. The flatness of the pitch was the key to the performance however, Sri Lanka’s batsmen were making the most of the favourable conditions where England’s had not.

Samaraweera and Jayawardene are both attractive players, but there was little artistic or exciting in their partnership. After the fireworks provided by Jayasuriya, they settled down to grind out an unchallengable lead however long it took. Both had reached their hundreds by the time they opened out and finally gave the crowd something to cheer. Samaraweera’s off-side driving then began once more to delight, and he showed a delightful wristiness when turning the ball to leg off the spinners. Jayawardene was brutal against anything short and scored runs all round the wicket.

In the end it took a well judged catch from substitute fielder Collingwood (on the field in place of Butcher, who had bruised fingertips missing another chance at gully) down at long-leg after a mis-hit hook off Flintoff which accounted for Jayawardene. Not long afterwards Samaraweera got into a mix-up with Dilshan and was run out, Chris Read dashing round to short cover to pick up and throw to the bowler’s end. But England’s sufferings were not over yet. Dilshan and Chandana pushed on into day 4 as the lead climbed way beyond 300. The declaration finally came at 628-8, a lead of 363.

Hopes of another sterling English rearguard at this stage were unrealistic. After two hard days in the field, at the end of their third back-to-back Test following on from tow more back-to-back affairs in Bangladesh, the tourists were spent. This is not to take anything away from Sri Lanka, who were the better side all through the series and had to cope with the three back-to-back Tests themselves, but it is yet further evidence of the dreadful weariness which will from time-to-time affect all Test sides in this modern era of crazy scheduling.

Having batted out 140 overs at Kandy, here England could only last for 68. Little real hope existed after 20. Trescothick had gone in the very first over, driving Vaas loosely to gully. Vaughan drove Fernando’s slower ball to mid-off for 14, then Murali ripped out Hussain, Thorpe and Batty in swift succession. There was dogged resistance from Butcher and Flintoff struck some defiant blows with the tail, but none of it was enough to lift the spectre of defeat from England’s shoulders. Fittingly, it was a big off-break ripped through James Kirtley’s gate that ended it all and gave Sri Lanka their first full series win over England, a win they richly deserved.

Although it was the failure of England’s batting which cost them this match, it was the striking difference in the quality of bowling which separated the two sides. England had no spinner to come near Muralitharan, no seamer to match Chaminda Vaas. They will be praying for a late Christmas present in the form of a fit again Steve Harmsison and Simon Jones for the trip to the Caribbean beginning in two months time. Without their extra pace, the seam attack looks worryingly unthreatening. Matthew Hoggard seems to have gone backwards since he came into the side three years ago, while James Anderson, since his dramatic debut a year ago, has lost his outswing, his pace and his confidence and now runs up to the crease as if approaching the north face of the Eiger in a howling headwind. James Kirtley, for all his boundless enthusiasm and professionalism, simply doesn’t have the special quality of a true Test bowler. The likes of Martin Saggers, James Ormond and Yorkshire’s firebrand Steve Kirby will surely be discussed when the party for the West Indies is picked.

Sri Lanka now await the ultimate challenge of Australia. Clearly, the chief interest of this series will be the likely encounter between Muralitharan and the returning Shane Warne, both of them facing batsmen well versed in dealing with spin. Murali’s new leg-spinning ‘doosra’ has added a new dimension to his game, and counfounded batsmen such as Graham Thorpe who once seemed to have worked him out. This will be an interesting challenge for the Aussie batsmen. But, viewed from behind the arm, the ‘doosra’ does not appear too difficult to pick. The arm cuts more clearly across the ball, swinging out to the bowler’s left in the follow through, whereas the off-break action sees the arm follow through much straighter, towards the batsman. Of course, it’s one thing picking it from behind the arm in a comfy chair, quite another playing it from 22 yards.

Scorecard Summary

England 265 (Flintoff 77, Trescothick 70) and 148 (Muralitharan 4-63)

Sri Lanka 628-8 dec (Samaraweera 142, Jayawardene 134, Jayasuriya 85, Dilshan 83, Chandana 76)

Sri Lanka won by an innings and 215 runs

Sri Lanka won series 1-0 after the first two Tests finished in a draw

Man of the Match

Thilan Samaraweera

Man of the Series

Muttiah Muralitharan


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