Test matches (3): England 1, Sri Lanka 1
One-day internationals (5): England 0, Sri Lanka 5
Twenty20 international (1): England 0, Sri Lanka 1
England's first home series since they won the 2005 Ashes was regarded as a chance to strut their stuff. If they had ambitions to be the best Test side in the world, then this kind of opposition was expected to be steamrollered. The combination of Sri Lanka's moderate recent Test record, England's renewed zest following their comeback in India and the traditional advantage that a springtime series - and the Lord's Test was the earliest ever held in England - gives them against hot-country opponents all seemed to point towards a pushover.
The reality turned out to be wholly different. The three-Test series was drawn 1-1; Sri Lanka levelled it on the fourth afternoon at Trent Bridge, when their one player who can never be written off, Muttiah Muralitharan, took eight wickets and for a time threatened to join Jim Laker and Anil Kumble, the only bowlers to have taken all ten in a Test innings. England, meanwhile, were bedevilled by injuries. In the absence of Michael Vaughan (who later joined Ashley Giles and Simon Jones in being ruled out for the entire summer) and, for the Tests, Steve Harmison, the burdens of both the captaincy and the attack were dumped on to the broad shoulders of Andrew Flintoff, whose indefatigable qualities were also tested to the full by a demanding benefit schedule.
By the end of the series, Flintoff was also a crock, succumbing to a further ankle injury that put his role in the winter's Ashes in doubt. Could this be traced back to the opening Test at Lord's when, in his first serious bowl of the season, and somewhat above his fighting weight, he bowled an excessive 68.3 overs and nothing above 85mph? He had gone from shock bowler to stock bowler - under his own captaincy, too.
By the final Test, England's record since their glorious series win at The Oval against Australia nine months earlier comprised two wins, three draws and four defeats. It became known as the Ashes hangover. Although injuries had played a part, too much of England's cricket had smacked of complacency. And, if the Test side struggled to assert itself, barely eight months before the World Cup the one-day side was in a pitiful state. In Flintoff 's absence, Andrew Strauss led them to a 5-0 defeat and sadly concluded: "It's not ideal being the stand-in for a stand-in."
Never before had England suffered a 5-0 whitewash in a bilateral oneday series. They averaged 275 runs per innings, yet the poverty of their bowling made a succession of decent scores impossible to defend. By the last one-day game at Headingley, when Sri Lanka surpassed England's 321 for seven with more than 12 overs to spare, the humiliation was complete. The selectors had opted for a cull of the one-day squad after losing 5-1 in India, but only Middlesex's batsman/off-spinner, Jamie Dalrymple, created a good impression for his all-round nous. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, might have imagined that it was 1996, the year of their World Cup triumph, all over again.
Fortunately, perhaps, by that time the football World Cup was in full cry in Germany, and the media's 2005 obsession with cricket seemed very ancient history. English national angst was focused on the football team not the cricket team. But the Sri Lankans were always going to be attractive opponents, even if they were expected to be less troublesome. And the crowds were healthy throughout.
Sri Lanka certainly provided the entertainment: the genius of Muralitharan, the serenity of Mahela Jayawardene and the slingshot bowling action of Lasith Malinga. And the caring leadership of Jayawardene, another man comparatively new to the travails of captaincy, gave them an extra dimension. They were shrewdly coached by the Australian, Tom Moody, who had left Worcestershire the previous summer - one of six current international coaches with a past in county cricket. In the murky world of Sri Lankan cricket politics, both had the advantage of largely independent thought, Moody by virtue of being a Western incomer, Jayawardene by an innate sense of decency.
In the absence of the regular captain Marvan Atapattu, who was injured, and Sanath Jayasuriya, who had just retired from Test cricket but was due to arrive for the one-day series, the intention was to blood a new pair of Sri Lankan openers. But shenanigans are never far from the surface in Sri Lankan cricket. On the eve of the opening Test at Lord's, the outspoken chairman of selectors, Ashantha de Mel, who had regained the post only that week, announced that Jayasuriya's retirement had been reversed and sent him to England, implying that his replacements were not up to the job. At first, none of the Sri Lankans looked up to it. England declared their first innings at Lord's at 551 for six, with centuries for Marcus Trescothick, reinstated after missing much of the winter because of personal pressures, and Kevin Pietersen.
When Sri Lanka buckled to 91 for six by the end of the second day, England envisaged a quick kill. They also concluded that they possessed a ready-made substitute for Simon Jones. Sajid Mahmood could hardly get a game at Lancashire, but he had impressed Rod Marsh at the Academy and satisfied the predilection for 90mph-plus bowlers. Others had flattered in early-season Tests, such as Ed Giddins and Richard Johnson, but Mahmood, with an action deemed perfect for reverse swing, seemed different.
The Lord's Test was also notable for its uncommon sense of fun. Flintoff and Muralitharan had been team-mates at Lancashire and at times, facing one another, could barely suppress their laughter. And then there was Monty Panesar, the young Sikh who had replaced Giles as England's left-arm spinner. Three days into his Test debut in England, he had already achieved the status of folk hero. A combination of maladroit, yet enthusiastic, fielding and a recognition that Panesar might develop into one of the most exotic and talented spinners in England's history produced a heady concoction of comedy and expectation that left the Lord's crowd at its most skittish. On Test Match Special, Henry Blofeld referred to "Monty Python" and pretended that it was a slip of the tongue.
But English smiles became more forced over the last two days. England dropped nine catches in the match; they put it down to the domino effect, but these players were at sixes and sevens, which doesn't sound like dominoes. Jayawardene deliberated for six hours over 119, surely the most painstaking of his 14 Test centuries. It was passive resistance at its most sublime, intimating that the captaincy could be the fulfilment of his career. England's mood changed from utter confidence to the realisation that certain victory had eluded them. Some compared it to Auckland 1996-97, when England's victory push foundered on the unlikely figure of tailender Danny Morrison, who had issued a celebratory tie to mark his world-record number of Test ducks.
They atoned for the Lord's let-off in the Second Test at Edgbaston, with a six-wicket win on the fourth day. The normal Test strip had been damaged during the removal of protective boarding for a fireworks display the previous November and, on the replacement pitch, Sri Lanka collapsed again in their first innings, making 141. This time there was no recovery.
England led by 154, an advantage gained by the pyrotechnics of Pietersen, who launched surely one of the most audacious Test hundreds witnessed in England. His 142 came from 157 balls and included an outlandish reverse sweep for six off Murali into the Rea Bank, and a top-spun flip off Farveez Maharoof from outside off stump through mid-on, dubbed "the flamingo" as he played it off one leg. It was an innings that revived memories of his Ashes-winning hundred at The Oval, from a batsman revelling in the adulation of the crowd and believing he could do no wrong. He even scored at virtually a run a ball against Muralitharan, relying on a long reach, confident footwork and an outlandish imagination. No right-handed batsman had combated Murali so confidently since he developed the doosra - the ball that, unlike his stock off-spinner, leaves the right-hander. Muralitharan called it one of the greatest innings he had ever seen.
And so to Trent Bridge, where the renewed English optimism extended briefly to speculation that Vaughan might be fit to return for the one-dayers. Meanwhile, Jayasuriya's Test comeback, in the middle order, was a nonevent; and Flintoff 's fastest spell of the season crippled Sri Lanka's first innings at 139 for eight. Again, England imagined that the series was theirs, but a surprisingly dry pitch had Murali's wrist twitching.
England trailed by two on first innings, and their pursuit of 325 was never likely. The force was with Murali - Pietersen caught off his wristband, Paul Collingwood via bottom edge and boot. Muralitharan's action will never be universally accepted, but the sceptics were now in a minority. When he took nine in an innings during Sri Lanka's victory at The Oval eight years earlier, his bowling had been greeted with boorish cries of no-ball. This time, the heart-warming applause from the Nottingham crowd was a fitting finale to what may have been his last Test in England. He took 24 of the 40 wickets claimed by Sri Lanka in the series, extending his Test record to 635, including 93 at 19.74 in his 13 Tests against England. The combination of a deformed elbow and a revolving wrist ensures that we really will never see his like again.
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Tour Match: British Universities v Sri Lankans at Cambridge, Apr 24-26, 2006
Tour Match: Derbyshire v Sri Lankans at Derby, Apr 29-May 1, 2006
Sir Paul Getty's XI v Sri Lankans at Wormsley, May 2, 2006
Tour Match: England A v Sri Lankans at Worcester, May 4-6, 2006
Tour Match: Sussex v Sri Lankans at Hove, May 18-21, 2006
Tour Match: Essex v Sri Lankans at Chelmsford, Jun 9, 2006
Tour Match: Somerset v Sri Lankans at Taunton, Jun 11, 2006
PCA Masters XI v Sri Lankans at Arundel, Jun 13, 2006