A spellbinding micro-series culminating in a marvellous pile-on
England's two-Test early summer series against Sri Lanka, the seventh-ranked of the eight major Test nations, scheduled directly against the football World Cup, would not have been expected to end in (a) defeat, (b) rabid excitement, (c) complaints that the series was too short, (d) recriminations, and (e) calls for the England captain's head. Even in the aftermath of England's Ashes Armageddon, and the sudden disintegration of a side that had been largely unchanged for five years, any of these outcomes would have seemed far-fetched. A year ago, they would have been quietly set aside as the deluded rantings of a lunatic.
As it was, all five scenarios materialised, after a spellbinding micro-series that contained two of the most spectacular Test match finales ever seen. The last three-and-a-bit days at Headingley provided the mesmerically fluctuating drama that only Test cricket can create, with subtle shifts in the narrative, wild momentum swings, and drawn-out, slowly ratcheted tension, plotted out by individual and collective brilliance and frailty. All ending in the biggest pile-on ever seen at the home of Yorkshire cricket. Or at least the biggest since Lord Hawke, the Honourable FS Jackson and Wilfred Rhodes got a bit overexcited after beating Kent by an innings in 1899, sparking the Yorkshire members to join in a 150-man bundle in exactly the same spot where the Sri Lankans leapt all over each other on Tuesday. (There are no known photographs that show the 1899 pile-on happening.) (But there are also no known photographs of it not happening either. So we must assume that it did happen.)
For Sri Lanka, a glorious victory, built on the batting of one certified and one potential great, and sealed by a pace attack that, before this series (and, at times, during this series), would have given few batsmen nightmares. Other than, perhaps, Sri Lankan batsmen, worrying about how long they would have to be in the field. However, Shaminda Eranga, initially rusty after injury, confirmed the promise of his early Tests, and Nuwan Pradeep, Angelo Mathews and, most spectacularly, Dammika Prasad bowled far better than they ever had done before in Tests - way, way better than their statistics suggested they could - and made cricketing history for their nation. It was Sri Lanka's first Test series win in England (at the fourth attempt), and their third Test match victory here, but the first achieved without a genius spinner taking the majority of the wickets (Murali took 16 at the Oval in 1998, and 11 at Trent Bridge in 2006).
For England, a first defeat in 15 early-summer series, and a shuddering beginning to the post-KP, post-Flower, post-Swann, post-Trott era. They wasted a chance to win at Lord's, and squandered a position of total dominance at Headingley. Their new players showed encouraging promise, their old ones displayed a range of frailties that ranged from the mildly concerning to the borderline alarming. And their captain is besieged by his form, footwork, statistics, critics, results, tactics and decisions. Since securing the series win against Australia with victory in Durham last summer, Cook has led England in eight successive Tests without success, their longest winless run since 1996-97.
On Monday, while Rangana Herath was cutting loose, Mathews was batting with the controlled mastery and immovable certainty of a peak-era Rembrandt in an Under-8s portrait-painting competition, and the remnants of England's world-conquering attack were looking as full of fizz, vim, verve and incision as a lump of stale cheddar, it was hard to remember a worse day for England in the field in any recent home Test.
Then, when Prasad defied his own statistics with that brilliant spell of zippy, pitched-up wobblers, and Liam Plunkett submitted an extremely strong entry for the prestigious Worst Ever Shot By A Nightwatchman title, it became almost impossible to think of anything that could have gone worse for England on the fourth day. Other than Sri Lanka bringing on Kevin Pietersen as a substitute fielder. Or England's poached coach Paul Farbrace pulling off his mask, Scooby-Doo-style, to reveal a chuckling Arjuna Ranatunga underneath. Or a giant Mitchell-Johnson-shaped blimp floating over the ground, trailing a banner reading, "See you next year", piloted by Shane Warne, armed with a megaphone, shouting: "Put six more slips in, you loser."
It is understandable that Cook's and England's confidence is fragile. Most people's would be after an unanaesthetised two-month bout of invasive abdominal surgery performed by an unqualified Viking doctor, which is what the Ashes amounted to. India's unimpressive-looking pace attack will have been encouraged by what Sri Lanka's unimpressive-looking pace attack has achieved. India's batsmen, inexperienced in English conditions, will be inspired by Mathews' magnificent performance on his first Test tour here. Another fascinating series between two flawed teams looms.
England's final-day resistance at least brought considerable dignity in defeat. It may even be that Cook's captaincy was saved by Moeen Ali, the supposed allrounder whose bowling the captain had trusted so little. Moeen's innings was, for me, in terms of both substance and style, the most exciting played by a new England player since Pietersen's Ashes-clinching 158 at the Oval in 2005. He is the brightest of the several shafts of hope amidst the rubble of this series defeat. He, Robson and Ballance will all have their techniques forensically examined in Tests to come this year and, especially, next. Moeen promises runs, style and excitement. England need all three.
* Did England underestimate the Sri Lankan seamers? Accusations of complacency are an easy, and often unjustified, gripe of first resort in the aftermath of a defeat. I doubt that they did. And it is undeniably true that, based on their previous performances, the Sri Lankan pacers overperformed (a) surprisingly, (b) impressively, and (c) enormously.
Eranga: Eight competitive overs in the five months before this series - took 11 wickets at 32 in the two Tests, smashing the record for most wickets taken by a Sri Lankan pace bowler in a series in England (Suranga Lakmal and Chanaka Welegedara took seven each in 2011; Chaminda Vaas only took nine wickets at 77 in his six Tests here).
Pradeep: Eight wickets at an average of 89 in his six-Test career before Lord's. Took only six wickets at 50 in the series but regularly posed problems, and his two victims at Leeds (Robson in the first innings, Root in the second) were important dismissals of well-set specialist batsmen.
Mathews: Nine wickets at 90 in 34 Tests since November 2009, with a career best of 2 for 60 (the only time he has taken more than one wicket in an innings). Hauled Sri Lanka back to the verges of contention with his 4 for 44, the best figures by a Sri Lankan seamer in England since Rumesh Ratnayake's 5 for 69 in the one-off Test in 1991.
Prasad: Nine wickets in his previous eight Tests at an average of 81. Quickly surpassed that, his 5 for 50 being the best figures by a Sri Lankan seamer in England, beating (a) Mathews, (b) Ratnayake, (c) the England top order, and (d) reasonable expectation.
It was, almost certainly, the finest spell of bowling ever by a bowler who had taken nine wickets in his previous eight Tests at an average of 81. Admittedly, this is a little-occupied statistical niche, but in terms of bolts from the statistical blue, Prasad's burst of 4 for 11 in 24 balls was one of the boltiest. In his previous 17 Test innings, he had never taken more than one wicket for less than 100 runs (having taken 3 for 82 and 2 for 60 in his debut, against India in 2008). He finished with 5 for 50 off 22 overs. In his entire 19-innings Test career until this performance, he had only gone for less than three runs per over twice (on one of which occasions he only bowled four overs).
England might have expected Kumar Sangakkara to prove his greatness, Mahela Jayawardene to make significant contributions, and if they had been studying recent form, Mathews to be a major obstacle. Sri Lanka's seamers had been an apparent weakness. They stepped up to the plate and ate all their vegetables.
* Rangana Herath's batting was a similarly unexpectable swinging anvil to England's cricketing solar plexus. In a superb supporting role to Mathews' masterpiece, Herath added 149 with his captain. Previously in the series, Sri Lanka's seventh-to-tenth-wicket partnerships had totalled 89 runs for 12 wickets.
Although Herath had once scored 80 against India, and batted well in England three years ago, he had not passed 15 in his last 26 Test innings, dating back to December 2011, when he scored 30 against South Africa. Since then, in 18 Tests, he had averaged 5.2 with the bat, been out on average once every 14 balls, and hit a total of 11 fours. In this match, with 14 not out in the first innings in a useful last-wicket thrash with Pradeep, and his partially match-winning 48 in the second, he scored 62 runs, hit ten boundaries, and remained undismissed by England's bowlers in 98 balls, before being run out.
His previous seven Test innings had been 3, 0, 6, 0, 0, 2 and 1 (including three golden ducks). He began his innings with England, despite their struggles with the ball, still in a winning position. He ended it, against a team now in the throes of another full cricketing meltdown, batting like Garry Sobers. Albeit like Garry Sobers after spending a month wearing a large rock as a hat.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer