Sri Lanka v England, 3rd Test, Colombo, 4th day December 21, 2003

And the walls came tumbling down

Another one bites the dust: Murali celebrates the vital England wicket of Graham Thorpe
© Getty Images

On Thursday, Marcus Trescothick had been in a particularly non-committal mood at the end-of-day press conference. "These things happen," was the gist of his response to England's ropey day in the field. They were sentiments echoed today by Michael Vaughan, as he put a brave face on a crushing defeat.

These things certainly do happen. Especially at the end of a long and arduous slog around the subcontinent, and especially when Muttiah Muralitharan is performing at his mesmeric best. Unfortunately for England, the record books don't deal in mitigating circumstances.

There has been something of England's tour of South Africa in 1995-96 about this trip. There have been heroic moments - England's escapes at Galle and Kandy were two of their finest rearguards since Michael Atherton's tour de force at Johannesburg. But just as that safari ended in humiliation in the final Test and the one-dayers that followed, so this exhausting odyssey has been topped and tailed by two bruising defeats.

There is no sugaring the pill when a side gets thumped by an innings and 215 runs. It was England's third-heaviest Test defeat in history, and their worst for 30 years. For Sri Lanka, it was their largest margin of victory ever. Throw in the debacle at Dambulla as an unappetising hors d'oeuvre, and it is quite clear that England have made a meal of this trip.

And yet it somehow seems unfair to criticise their performance too harshly. If nothing else, today's result merely highlights the gravity-defying feats that England pulled off in the first two Tests. At no stage in this series have England looked remotely capable of winning, and yet they came within five days of not losing. Had they held out (a prospect that would have been significantly improved had Vaughan not won the toss for a change), it would have been a result to rank alongside New Zealand's 0-0 tour of Australia two winters ago.

England's only realistic hope of saving this match lay in a big first-wicket stand between Trescothick and Vaughan, and the message it would have sent through the side. Instead, Tresco fell for a sixth-ball duck, and the game was up. As it happens, a swift end was a mercy, although hindsight - and those unforgiving record-books - will not be so merciful.

The sight of the match, and indeed the whole series, was Graham Thorpe's befuddled charge at Murali's wrong'un. Thorpe - the mightiest batsman in England's ranks, and a man to rank alongside Brian Lara when it comes to taming Murali - had been nailed with a sucker punch and made to look like a novice. It was an outstanding moment of cricket, and one that should fill the Australians with trepidation, not that they've got much spare time at the moment.

With his new mystery legbreak, Murali is the most complete bowler in world cricket, and February's three-Test series against the Aussies promises to be a magnificent tussle. Already, Murali will be targetting Ricky Ponting, Australia's Test-captain-elect, and a man who has not enjoyed taking on spinners in the subcontinent.

In the past week, both England and Australia have slumped to history-making defeats against Asian opposition. In Australia's case, it was because they batted too aggressively. England, on the other hand, were too timid. Where Murali and his bag of snakes are concerned, finding that perfect balance has just become all the harder.

Andrew Miller, Wisden Cricinfo's assistant editor, accompanied England throughout their travels in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.