Sri Lankans seal last-gasp win

Sri Lanka snatched a dramatic victory to go 1-0 up in the three-match series, taking the final wicket with perhaps quarter-of-an-hour of playable light remaining. It was the final twist of a day that swung one way then the next; the Sri Lankan seamers, led by Chaminda Vaas, had appeared to have the game wrapped-up after the first hour; Ian Bell and Matthew Prior stood on the burning bridge for almost two sessions’ worth of play and so nearly saved the game. But the ubiquitous Muttiah Muralitharan removed both and set the stage for the final denouement.

Vaas had already removed Alastair Cook the previous evening; in his 2nd over of the day, following a series of outswingers to the left-handed James Anderson which Michael Vaughan had watched from the other end, the left-armer produced one that slid across the England captain and drew the edge. He removed the nightwatchman in his next over as well, swinging one slightly away and beating the outside-edge to crash into the off-stump.

Bell and Kevin Pietersen both looked in excellent touch, Bell unsurprisingly so after his fine first-innings knock. Pietersen again looked solid and hit several crisp strokes. But after advancing to 18 Dilhara Fernando produced a straight delivery which crept along the floor. There was nothing Pietersen could have done to keep it out and the Sri Lankans had their most prized wicket. Collingwood, having raced to 16 off 22, fell in familiar fashion: Stuart Clark caused the Durham batsman plenty of problems by persuading him to drive through the covers off the front foot, noticing he struggled to keep the ball down. Fernando profited from this again as Collingwood hit the ball straight to Kumar Sangakkara at extra-cover. With nearly 80 overs remaining, 5 wickets down and 3 number-eleven batsmen remaining, the Sri Lankans would have felt confident of finishing the game in the following session.

Ravinder Bopara, who had struggled in the first-innings before being caught down the leg-side, looked much more impressive in the second dig, timing the ball impressively off seamers and spinners. Having raced to 34 from 38 balls, however, he had serious problems with Sanath Jayasuriya in the 41st over: first a huge lbw shout when the batsman attempted to sweep was turned-down; a vicious leg-break took the edge and fell just short of Sangakkara at slip; and finally he was rapped again on the pads by the straight ball prodding forward. Some doubt was subsequently cast on the decision, but part of the ball appeared to be in line with the stumps on contact with the pad. This brought Prior to the crease, on a pair though on the back of two impressive performances with the gloves.

For almost 4 hours the pair stood firm. Murali camped in, swapping ends once, and tested the batsmen with his full repertoire: vicious off-breaks, topspinners and wrong-‘uns; over and around the wicket; and with fielders close-in, in the covers and on the boundary. Vaas, Malinga and Fernando could find little threat, and Jayasuriya bowled plenty, getting the odd ball to turn but seeing much go straight on. The two batsmen kept out the straight ones, dug-out Malinga’s yorkers, clipped those which drifted onto their pads into the leg-side and punched those with width through the covers. Prior showed admirable restraint, bringing-up his half-century off 131 balls, interminable by his usual standards. Their seventh-wicket partnership of 109 was a record for England against Sri Lanka. As the partnership grew, the home side became more and more agitated, sensing victory was slipping through their fingers. The over-rate, abysmal from both sides throughout the game, was suddenly raised dramatically as they aimed for one last throw of the dice with the new ball.

As expected, Vaas took the first over, but Murali could not have the ball taken from him and bowled the second. He soon changed ends again, and after 31 overs of fruitless toil – something no-one could possibly have anticipated at the start of play – he produced an inspired wrong-‘un from around the wicket which Prior failed to pick and which crashed into the stumps in a vague replay of his record-taking dismissal of Collingwood. Just 2 balls later – either side of an over from the luckless Malinga – he produced a large off-break to Bell from the same angle. The batsman anticipated even more turn than the delivery produced, however, and played inside the ball, only to see it turn back onto the stumps once more. Suddenly, the match was wide open again.

Ryan Sidebottom and the injured Matthew Hoggard showed admirable composure as the sun began to dip towards the roof of the stands, and the drinks cart was brought onto the field for one final time. Hoggard’s back caused him sufficient trouble to necessitate the call for a runner, and it was almost a given that the England physio would take the opportunity to wander to the middle. Aleem Dar was not impressed, and had stern words with the three men from the England camp. A further delay was incurred when, once again, a dog decided to take to the field.

The resistance could not last, however, and it was perhaps poetic-justice after their attempts at time-wasting that England should fall foul of an Umpiring decision, not the first of the game. This time it was Sidebottom who was adjudged lbw to a wicked wrong-‘un from Murali despite a considerable inside-edge. Just a single wicket remained for the home side to take.

After an unthreatening over from Vaas, Malinga was called once again into the attack, perhaps at the last possible minute as the sun was now behind the stadium and darkness was beginning to fall. Murali lurked, and Jayasuriya was always there to return to the attack if need be, but the most famous yorker merchant yet produced by Sri Lanka was always the best bet. Off the last ball of his over, he produced the goods – a perfect leg-stump delivery, pitching right on the popping-crease, fizzed through Hoggard’s defences and into the stumps. In scenes reminiscent of his World Cup four-in-four, Malinga hared around, arms spread in jubilation. His side had won, given Jayasuriya a perfect send-off, Vaas a perfect 100th Test and Murali a perfect finish to the game in which he had reclaimed the record.

As much as anything though, it was the batting of Sangakkara which deserved to set-up a victory, and had now done so. The 30-year-old left-hander was given the match award for his double of 92 and 152, and it was impossible to begrudge the home side their victory. The series now moves to Sinhalese Sports Club, Colombo, and the players have just 3 days of rest before they have to resume in what is likely to be stifling heat. The home side hold the advantage.

Sri Lanka 188
Kumar Sangakkara 92, Prasanna Jayawardene 51
Matthew Hoggard 4-29, Monty Panesar 3-46

England 281
Ian Bell 83, Paul Collingwood 45
Muttiah Muralitharan 6-55

Sri Lanka 442 for 8 declared
Michael Vandort 49, Sanath Jayasuriya 78, Kumar Sangakkara 152, Mahela Jayawardene 65

England 261
Ian Bell 74, Matthew Prior 63
Chaminda Vaas 3-56, Muttiah Muralitharan 3-85

Sri Lanka won by 88 runs

Man of the Match: Kumar Sangakkara

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