Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Galle, 3rd day December 4, 2003

Clinging to Murali's coat-tails

Ashley Giles: reward for perseverance
© Getty Images 2003

"The key with Murali is keeping him at bay," said Nasser Hussain in the build-up to this Test. "If he is going to take five wickets in an innings, we have to make sure they are spread over 50 or 60 overs."

Unfortunately, Nasser wasn't around today to help put those brave words into practice. And nor, in his absence, were England's middle order. Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff and Chris Read contributed two runs between them: Murali's five-for in fact became a seven-for. And as for those overs ... he needed just 31.4 of them to rattle through a side that had already been rattled by his violent batting yesterday evening.

But that was far from being the end of the story. England were down, as they always expected to be in this match, but they are far from out, thanks to perhaps the most derided spin pairing in world cricket.

Gareth Batty and Ashley Giles did not enjoy a fruitful tour of Bangladesh. They were denounced as "ordinary" by an uppity teenager, who just happened to have milked them for a charming century in a warm-up match, and they arrived in Sri Lanka to be told that Robert Croft was on his way out to break up their not-so-cosy partnership.

But between them, they are doing their utmost to cling to the coat-tails of the world's greatest offspinner. By the close, Giles and Batty had grabbed 10 of the 15 Sri Lankan wickets to have fallen so far, and though England still trailed by an ominous 195 runs, Sri Lanka's only remaining frontline batsman is Mahela Jayawardene. There is cause for hope in the English camp, although, bearing Murali's marvels in mind, optimism might be stretching it a touch.

Where Murali had been all angles and extravagance, Batty and Giles owed their success to more prosaic values: sweat, toil, and perseverance. The ball that did for Marvan Atapattu, for example, was that deadliest of weapons - the mystery straight one. But it could not have made the breakthrough had it not been allied to great accuracy and admirable discipline.

England entered this match muttering about the uncharted territory of three spinners, but wisely they stuck to the formula that they know best. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, might reflect that they allowed themselves to get a little carried away. After years of accusations that they are a one-man bowling attack, they went all out to disprove that theory, by picking two extra spinners in addition to Sanath Jayasuriya's under-rated legspin. In hindsight, and at 99 for 5, it all seems a little excessive.

Sri Lanka should win this Test match, and comfortably. But they could have done with an extra batsman as an insurance policy. Then again, the last time Murali took seven wickets in an innings against England, he followed up with a nine-for. It might be asking a bit much of England's resistance for those to be spread across 100 second-innings overs.

Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, is accompanying England on their travels throughout Sri Lanka.