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Sri Lanka dominate in all depts
24 Dec 2007
By: Richard Dickinson

If one were to cast the mind back to December 2003, they would find a Sri Lankan side beating England by a somewhat meagre one-nil margin, a scoreline which scarcely conveyed the home side's utter dominance of the three-Test rubber. Something startlingly similar happened on the corresponding visit in December 2007.

The difficulty of beating Sri Lanka on home soil is well-known. They have lost just 4 out of 23 home Test series in the last 11 years, with only Pakistan (2000 and 2005\06) having won more than once. England (2000\01) and Australia (2003\04) have managed one success each in that time. Perhaps, then, those optimists who believed England had more than a ghost of a chance were living somewhere dangerously close to Cloud Cuckoo Land, especially given that they had surrendered at home to India just months previously and were without (for the 3rd series in a row) the talismanic figure of Andrew Flintoff.

Nonetheless, in Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen England possessed the solid core of a settled batting-line-up; in Matthew Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom two reliable seam-bowlers; and in Monty Panesar a potential trump-card given surfaces were expected to offer plenty to spinners. This turned-out not to be the case: in the first two Tests the ball gripped, but the pitches were so desperately slow that even the usually omnipotent Muttiah Muralitharan was a real threat for just a very brief time at Kandy. At Galle, meanwhile, England's catching was so shambolic (as it had been in the corresponding fixture at the Sinhalese Sports Club 4 years ago) as to render bowlers of all types innocuous.

It was a great disappointment, then, to see England's batsmen so dismally fail to produce the goods. The decision to restore Michael Vaughan to the top of the order was a questionable one (Vaughan now averages just 30.75 in his last 30 innings as an opener, passing 50 just 6 times), doubly so given that it turned-out Andrew Strauss was dropped not for Owais Shah (who has been banging firmly on the Test door for 7 years now) but Ravinder Bopara (with just a single season of any great note in Championship cricket to his name). Triply so, maybe, as Vaughan had finally shaken-off the batting blues of his captaincy with a barnstorming 2007 season at the number-three position.

Sri Lanka's top-order, by contrast, amassed massive totals, at first glance, with no effort. However, had England's catching been up to scratch the contributions of most of their batsmen could easily have been halved. Through the course of the entire series, Sri Lanka dropped just three genuine catches, all off Alastair Cook, two in the same innings and one which cost nothing; England put down at least 9 as well as having 3 dismissals denied by poor Umpiring. Perhaps more crucially still, they lost 4 wickets of their own to contentious Umpiring decisions, while the only such Sri Lankan wickets were the openers at Galle. England were undoubtedly on the hard end of the Umpiring, but it was hard to overtly sympathise with them when they damaged their own cause so badly by dropping catches.

Except, of course, with the bowlers. Of the 12 Sri Lankan let-offs, 4 came from the bowling of the despairing Sidebottom, almost halving his would-be series tally. Hoggard also lost-out on 4 - all at Galle - Panesar 2 and Stephen Harmison and Stuart Broad a single each. This, combined with the general lack of seam-movement offered by the pitches and balls that, all series, only twice - for either side, conventionally or reverse - swung for more than 3 or 4 overs, made it hard to criticise the England seamers too much. Hoggard was magnificent in the first session at Kandy in the first of these two spells and showed his value when the swing stopped in the second. Sidebottom, meanwhile, would have capitalised far more effectively on the short new-ball spells of conventional swing had fielders and Umpires not denied him. Hoggard was disappointing after returning from injury at Galle, but would have come back well had he not been denied by the Umpires and his fielders.

Harmison, overlooked for the opening Test in favour of Anderson, bowled far better than virtually anyone could have expected when restored but, predictably, offered little threat on pitches which only rarely showed signs of uneven bounce. Broad, who has seemingly been around forever at 21 years of age, finally made his Test debut but like everyone else could extract nothing from the SSC wicket, though his lines were mostly impressive. Only Anderson of the seamers genuinely regressed; after bowling reasonably in a support role in the first-innings at Kandy, he was mauled by the soon-to-be-retired Sanath Jayasuriya in the second and could not recover. It cannot be long before the question must be asked of whether Anderson will ever make a Test-class bowler.

Backed by much superior fielding, Sri Lanka's bowlers were never out of the game. Chaminda Vaas and Muralitharan have both had any number of better series than this, but theirs was the overwhelming contribution to making their side the superior one. Murali was the difference between England and a massive first-innings lead at Kandy, where he reclaimed the Test wickets record, and though he took only 13 at 27.38 in the next five innings' England knew they could never think of relaxing against him. The slow pitches allowed them to muzzle him, more than they managed in 2003\04, but they never mastered him.

Vaas, nearly 34 years of age now, with 3631 Test overs behind him and rarely reaching much more than 75 mph, was anodyne in four out of six innings', but devastating in the other two, making the biggest incisions in bowling England out in the second-innings at Kandy and giving a perfect lesson in the exploitation of swing-friendly conditions in the first-innings at Galle to make the biggest incisions in dismissing them for 81. Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando each made important contributions in between expensive, unthreatening spells, and Chanaka Welegedara made a moderately impressive debut at Galle, taking 4-76.

Despite the help from England's fielders, Sri Lanka's top-order was impressive. Jayasuriya raised himself for one last hurrah in the second-innings at Kandy, scoring just his second Test half-century in the last 3 years before retiring from Tests for a second time. The most consistent batsmen were Michael Vandort and the ubiquitous Mahela Jayawardene. After a lame chip to mid-on for 8 the first-innings at Kandy, Vandort scored 49, 138 and an 18 which was ended by a poor decision from Asad Rauf. Jayawardene, removed by a beauty of an outswinger from Hoggard in the first innings, responded with 65, 195 and 213*, though in the lattermost he benefited twice from Matthew Prior's once-per-series shocker.

After standing head-and-shoulders above his team-mates at Kandy with 92 and 152 (though he benefited from a misjudgement from Aleem Dar and a slip fumble from Bell respectively, he still outscored the rest of the Sri Lankan batsmen before giving the chances), Sangakkara was quieter in the next two innings. But, after 1529 runs (for 10 times out) in his previous 14 Test trips to the crease (including Kandy), a couple of failures could be more than excused. His contributions at Kandy very possibly made the difference between defeat and victory, with hindsight in series as well as match.

Sangakkara, as he has for the previous 16 months, played as a specialist batsman, and was allowed to do so by the exemplary glovework and more than useful lower-order batting of Prasanna Jayawardene. It is nearly 10 years since he first toured England as Romesh Kaluwitharana's 18-year-old understudy, but finally the diminutive right-hander has begun to hint at regular run-scoring ability, never more vitally so than in his 51 in the first-innings at Kandy where he partnered Sangakkara to lift his side out of a deep mire. He currently appears to have the challenge of Kaushal Silva, Sri Lanka A wicketkeeper-batsman, at arm's length.

Vandort certainly hinted once again that he has the tools to take Marvan Atapattu's place at the top of the order, even though he fails to match the right-hander's effortless grace. Upul Tharanga, on the other hand, failed to convince once more, though with the relative lack of opening options he is likely to get more chances. Chamara Silva regressed badly, and still has just one good Test to his name (though that Test containing 61 and 152* means he still has some measure of credit in the bank).

No-one, on either side, did as badly as the forlorn Jehan Mubarak, though Bopara came close. With 18 runs in 3 innings he has now gone 17 Test innings without a half-century, averages less than 16, and surely cannot expect many if any further opportunities. Tillakaratne Dilshan returned for the Third Test and though he was exceptionally fortunate to score 84 he can now feel assured of another run in the side, and at 31 may hope to be entering his prime. If he is, Sri Lanka will have something of a formidable batting unit and can travel to West Indies full of confidence as they aim to record their first victories there in a Test and series (they have only toured twice previously).

England, on the other hand, have now won just two series, both against severely depleted sides, out of eight since their 2005 Ashes victory. They have finally lost the number-two position in the ICC Test rankings, and have been forced to contemplate more and more vividly the realisation that two of the biggest players in that 2005 campaign, Flintoff and Simon Jones, may never play Tests again, never mind come close to their former glories. New Zealand is the next destination, after a break for Christmas, New Year and January, and though both sides have a distinct lack of recent form an intriguing contest could be on the cards. Both sides will fancy their chances, despite holes aplenty in their sides.

England's biggest worries will be over their top-order, including the wicketkeeping position. Strauss will travel to New Zealand in January, though only to play one-day cricket, and will hope to be in with a shout at a recall. After a poor First Test, Cook reaffirmed his compact class in the rest of the series, and looks a reassuring presence once again. Should Strauss be recalled, Vaughan would presumably move back to three, with Bell returning to his favoured number-six slot. This would be exceptionally harsh on Shah, who has still played just 2 Tests despite the fact that he has barely stopped scoring First-Class runs since 2001. It would not be harsh on Bopara, whose selection must now be considered a shocking blunder. He scored a moderately impressive 34 in the Kandy second-innings, but followed-up with three consecutive ducks. Not yet 23, he is more than young enough to try again, but it was something of a shame for all concerned that he was sent prematurely into the firing-line.

Perhaps the largest question-mark of all, though, falls on Prior. After virtually faultless glovework at Kandy and the SSC, the problems posed by his poor footwork surfaced again at Galle, where he missed 3 chances. His batting proved, perhaps rather surprisingly, resilient (his series strike-rate was just 42.41), as he dug England out of a considerable hole at the SSC, so nearly saved the match at Kandy then scored a potentially very important 19* to last until the rains at Galle. It is unlikely that his head is yet on the chopping-block, but a poor series in New Zealand - and his weakness with the bat has so far tended to be when facing high-quality swing and seam - might see him replaced should James Foster or Steven Davies start the 2008 season in fine form. To continue with a wicketkeeper who has one shocking game per series - as Prior has in the Third Tests against India and in Sri Lanka - is simply untenable.

With the ball matters appear a little more straightforward: Flintoff's continuing absence is crippling, but in Hoggard and Sidebottom England possess two bowlers who should enjoy conditions in New Zealand if they conform to expectations - and if their fielders back them up. Harmison will almost certainly remain in the team after his non-disastrous performances, and despite his hugely disappointing series Panesar is still a long way from being scratched from the first-choice teamsheet. That the left-arm fingerspinner was unable to bowl Sri Lanka out is not catastrophic - Muralitharan's relative struggles attest to this - but it was still well below the expectations of everyone, not least the Sikh from Luton himself. He can only hope that the next time he bowls in the subcontinent, more things go his way.

Composite series XI
Michael Vandort
Alastair Cook
Kumar Sangakkara
*Mahela Jayawardene
Ian Bell
Matthew Prior
+Prasanna Jayawardene
Chaminda Vaas
Ryan Sidebottom
Matthew Hoggard
Muttiah Muralitharan

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