Sri Lanka v England, 3rd Test, Colombo, 2nd day December 19, 2003

A swing and a miss

Sanath Jayasuriya: battered England with ease
© Getty Images

There is a mantra used by baseball players, and adopted by that great novelist and part-time Test cricketer, Ed Smith, that helps batters to perfect their timing. "Wait, wait, wait ... quick, quick, quick," is the gist of it. Don't snatch at your opportunity, is the message.

Until yesterday lunchtime, England had done everything right in this series. At Galle and Kandy they had waited, waited and waited, with monk-like patience, when all the conditions - including the toss - had been loaded against them. But today in Colombo, England produced their most forgettable day of the tour, at precisely the moment they could least afford it.

After a mixed first day, and a brisk end to the innings this morning, England had no option but to strike, and strike hard, today. Instead, they produced a swing and a miss, and by the close Sri Lanka had cantered to within one run of first-innings parity, with eight wickets still standing. The recent events at Adelaide are a timely reminder that nothing in Test cricket can be taken for granted, but it would be a miracle if England can claw something back from this position.

When John Dyson attempted to ridicule England's defensive approach at Kandy last week, his words were greeted with widespread astonishment. But perhaps he had a point after all, if clumsily phrased.

All winter, both here and in Bangladesh, England have thrived on a siege mentality. In Bangladesh, much of the siege was of their own making, as they talked up their hosts to talk down their own expectations. But here, it has been part of a definitive game-plan. As England proved in 2000-01, so long as they stay in the race at all costs, there is always a chance of winning the sprint finish.

But England did not stay in the race today. Sanath Jayasuriya battered them back with Trescothick-like ease, allowing Thilan Samaraweera to roll across the middle ground unhindered, something that England's middle order had palpably failed to do. England's five bowlers meanwhile bowled like ... well, a five-man bowling attack, always looking to someone else to make the breakthrough. And just to complete the set, they were let down in the field as well. The lethargic tempo of the day's play was totally at odds with the needs of the hour.

In hindsight, Michael Vaughan might just be wishing that he had completed a set of a different kind, and lost his fifth toss of the winter. England might then have fancied their chances of survival and more, especially if the onus had been on the defensively minded Hashan Tillakaratne to call the shots.

Instead, England have one last shot at salvation, and that is a do-or-die counter-attack with the new ball tomorrow morning. Their defensive shell has served them well so far this winter. But now it is time to cast it aside, and take an almighty swing.

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