England fail to learn lessons

Duncan Fletcher must feel like the schoolteacher faced with a class full of pupils with ‘learning difficulties’. Following the debacle at The Oval on Tuesday, one would have thought the England bowlers would have learnt not to offer Sanath Jayasuriya room to flay his arms. Or Upul Tharanga, after the defeat in the opening game at Lord’s. But the lessons have not been consolidated, and there was much headshaking in the crowd, in the commentary box and out in the middle, as a succession of short, wide deliveries scooted to the boundary ropes as Sri Lanka’s eight-wicket win at Chester-le-Street took them to a three-nil series victory.

That is not to take anything away from a Sri Lankan side that could be considered among the key contenders for next year’s World Cup. There is an abundance of pure talent in their batting lineup, intelligent seamers, and a variety of slow bowlers to constrict the opposition mid-innings. Mahela Jayawardene’s blistering century was the stand-out performance today, mirroring similar innings from Jayasuriya and Tharanga in two previous games.

England made just the solitary change from the side which was flattened at The Oval: Tim Bresnan, entirely unimpressive so far, was left out and replaced by Alex Loudon, the Warwickshire off-spinning all-rounder, perhaps in a move to mirror the Sri Lankan spin dominance. Dilhara Fernando returned for the tourists, replacing Ruchira Perera, but the talismanic Muttiah Muralitharan had returned home to his ailing son, and Malinga Bandara was given his first international outing of the tour.

Following the absence of a substantial opening partnership in either of the first two games, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss made a steady, if unspectacular start in overcast condition, and the home side progressed to 62 without loss. However Chaminda Vaas, bowling with Sangakkara standing up and in the midst of an economical opening spell, removed both openers in quick succession as neither failed to capitalise on solid foundations. Strauss was pinned leg before, strangled as he tried to punch through midwicket; Trescothick too looked leg-side and lost his middle stump.

Kevin Pietersen’s knee injury, sustained in the previous match at The Oval, was obviously hampering his running between the wickets, a problem accentuated by when he received a further blow to the damaged area during his brief stint at the crease. After being dropped behind by Sangakkara, he slashed loosely at a wide delivery from Lasith Malinga, and the Sri Lankan keeper did not repeat his earlier error.

With the more obdurate Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood now out in the middle, England’s focus turned to nudging the singles and manipulating some ragged Sri Lankan fielding. For a time it appeared the pair were leading something of a stable recovery, until Collingwood was tempted by the loop of Malinga Bandara’s impressive leg-breaks and jabbed to extra-cover for 33.

In Jamie Dalrymple, England at last seem to have unearthed a suitable one-day utility player. Whereas Ian Blackwell’s batting has as yet not lit up the international arena, Dalyrymple has shown the right mixture of flair and application required for the pivotal spinner’s role, and again proved the catalyst for advancing England’s innings. His 35 (from 32 balls) ensured that the home nation posted a competitive total, and he, along with Bell, navigated the tricky middle overs superbly. Sanath Jayasuriya’s wily left-arm spin was nullified, while Dalrymple’s clean, straight six off Bandara was the high point of the innings.

Dalrymple eventually perished in the 45th over, attempting a slightly over ambitious paddle-sweep off Malinga. Now Bell began to accelerate, shifting from his accumulating role, backing away to the leg-side and slapping the Sri Lankan pace bowlers through the arc between point and extra-cover. Eventually he became the victim of the requirement for further expansion, run out for 77 looking for a risky second, as was the debutant Alex Loudon – without facing. A flurry of scampered singles and deft deflections from Geraint Jones, who finished unbeaten on 22 from 13, allowed England to post a respectable 261 for seven from their 50 overs.

It cannot be rocket science, as goes the clich?, to know that bowling short and wide at Jayasuriya will only result in boundaries, and once again England fed the tiger, who lashed out ferociously. For his 13 ball stay, in which the left-hander cracked four fours and a six (all square cut), Jayasuriya looked as if he was going to take the attack once more and rack up another hundred. Only Sajid Mahmood’s quick reactions prevented him from doing so, running him out for 23 as the Sri Lankan batsmen attempted to pinch a cheeky single in front of the stumps.

The arrival of Jayawardene to the crease only made matters worse for Strauss, the England skipper. Now confronted with a right hand/left hand combination and. with his bowlers spraying the ball around like a botanical gardener at the end of a hosepipe ban, England disintegrated. After Harmison, Plunkett and Mahmood had seen their deliveries disappear to the fence several times each, Strauss turned to the normally reliable Collingwood, who promptly delivered an array of long-hops and misplaced slower balls: Tharanga and Jayawardene feasted. An experiment with the gentle medium-pace of Bell had even greater consequences: twelve came off his solitary over.

Again Dalrymple was the only man between Sri Lanka and a landslide victory: he took the only wicket to fall to a bowler (Tharanga top-edging a sweep on 41), was the only bowler with an economy rate below five-and-a-half. Meanwhile runs continued to flow from the bat of Jayawardene, as he finished unbeaten on 126 from 127 balls, with 19 fours. Receiving support from Kumar Sangakkara (58 from 78), the pair staged a 140-run third wicket partnership, and clinched victory with seven overs and four balls to spare. Flintoff or no Flintoff, England must perform in the remainder of the series if they do not want to face the embarrassment of another failure at the World Cup. Kenya, New Zealand and Canada must be licking their chops.

England 261-7 (50 overs)
Ian Bell 77, Marcus Trescothick 36, Jamie Dalrymple 35
Chaminda Vass 2-38, Lasith Malinga 2-50

Sri Lanka won by 8 wickets

Sri Lanka 265-2
DPMD Jayawardene 126*, KC Sangakkara 58*
Jamie Dalrymple 1-40

Cricket Web Man of the Match: DPMD Jayawardene

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