England v Sri Lanka, Southampton, Pool D September 18, 2004

Plucking autumnal leaves

The Sri Lankans were in no danger of catching a cold - or anything else - at the Rose Bowl © AFP

It's the time of the year when the winds pick up their swirling intensity and pluck autumnal leaves off the forests around Southampton, and young men pack their flannels away and train their thoughts on football, wondering if anyone can stop Arsenal. It's also that time of the year when young women trade their short skirts and skimpy tops for something sturdier and warmer; you could very easily catch a cold as the temperature drops perceptibly. Sri Lanka needn't worry about that, though - they haven't caught a thing in two days.

On either side of a rain-affected match Sri Lanka's fielders put down chances that the average enthusiastic club cricketer would have taken. On the day before this match Sri Lanka spent a long time in the second oval at the Rose Bowl. They practised simultaneously in three nets, training hard in cloudy conditions. Just as they walked off, happily signing autographs for the punters who had waited a couple of hours, John Dyson, the coach, bellowed at his players, urging them to drop their pens and head straight to the outfield for a fielding session.

At one end of the ground was Shane Duff, the trainer, and at the other, Dyson, hitting catch after catch at the players. When you saw them go about their drills, cheering each other at every sharp chance or good stop, you couldn't help think this was a cracking fielding unit.

As it turned out they were cracking, but in the manner of a decrepit wall straddling the roots of a great big oak, rather than like a Hitchcock thriller keeping you on the edge of your seat. Nuwan Zoysa, gangly and uncoordinated in the field, doesn't look the part, and when Marcus Trescothick leading-edged one towards him at mid-on, he showed the judgment and aim of an overfed toddler in potty training. The ball found safe passage between his outstretched hands, and Trescothick went on to add 57 more runs.

If dropping Trescothick is a spanking offence, then dropping Andrew Flintoff must be a sacking one. When the man lovingly called Freddie in these parts had just 1 to his name, he pushed a Chaminda Vaas delivery towards the lone slip fielder. Mahela Jayawardene, eager to get the game in the bag, snatched hard ... and grassed the chance. The beer-fuelled yobs in the stands immediately yelled out several different versions of Steve Waugh's "you just dropped the cup, mate" throwaway line to Herschelle Gibbs.

The rain gave the Sri Lankans the chance to contemplate the cost of that miss at length, but when play resumed on the second day, they showed that they knew the price of Flintoff's wicket but not the value. After he had added just four runs, Flintoff heaved Tillakaratne Dilshan to the deep-midwicket region. Upul Chandana, usually a livewire on the field, reacted late, shuffled stutteringly towards the ball, threw himself in desperation in the end, and fluffed it. Flintoff went on to bat virtually through to the end of the innings, and, with 104 from 91 balls, set the platform for a barnstorming England win that paves their way to an Ashes semi-final.

If you want some warm clothing, best nip across to the Sri Lankan dressing-room. There must be a few sweaters going around, for the players probably don't need them. None of them is likely to catch as much as a cold at the moment.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.