England v Sri Lanka, 2006

Second Test

England v Sri Lanka, 2006

Jim Holden

At Birmingham, May 25, 26, 27, 28. England won by six wickets. Toss: Sri Lanka.

One moment of genius lifted this otherwise moderate Test above the norm. One bravura batting stroke gave the game its own little place in history. One individual contest - the heart of cricket - made everyone who watched smile with joy and gasp in astonishment.

All along, the personal battle between Kevin Pietersen and Muttiah Muralitharan was a sheer delight. Pietersen relied on his unique combination of power, panache, instinct and thoughtful unorthodoxy. Muralitharan countered with all his wit and guile, persistence and unique double-jointed blend of variations. And there was no doubting that Pietersen was the victor, even though Murali twice had the final word.

But the real triumph came in England's first innings. Pietersen had already scored 136 from 154 balls, while no other batsman topped 30. As Muralitharan danced towards the wicket, Pietersen did his own pirouette at the crease, changing his feet and his grip to turn himself into a left-hander. He then unleashed the ball into the crowd for six. It was more than just a reverse sweep, and the word "sweep" hardly conveys the lethal power of the stroke, still less its awesome inventiveness. Murali could no more believe it than anyone else. He said afterwards that Pietersen was now "on top of the world" as a batsman. The official ICC rankings merely lifted him to No. 10.

Pietersen called it "a naughty shot", an admission that it was reckless as well as revolutionary. Some said it was too naughty. He fell attempting an orthodox sweep two balls later, and perhaps he had become over-confident. But most spectators revelled in the moment: to see one of the world's most baffling bowlers looking so baffled himself was a treat. In the endless duel between batsman and bowler, Pietersen had given us an entirely new variation, and few cricketers can say that. He was rightly named man of a match that England - unchanged from Lord's, despite all the criticism - again dominated. But this time they pressed home their superiority.

Sri Lanka chose to bat in reasonably bright sunshine. However, the conditions again suited England's combination of swing and seam, and they were 65 for six at lunch. Hoggard, reliable as ever, bowled Tharanga with an inswinger in the very first over. Plunkett went one better, claiming two in his opening over, and Mahmood nearly followed suit - he had a chance dropped in his first over, and got Maharoof to edge behind in his second. Flintoff removed Dilshan with his first ball after lunch, and his captaincy, after criticism at Lord's, was more forceful here. Catches were still dropped, however, none more easy than the one spilled by Panesar at mid-off that allowed Malinga to add 50 with Vaas for the ninth wicket. Then Panesar - in his first over - ended Malinga's stay by trapping him leg-before. It illustrated the dilemma England faced over Panesar. The home crowd not merely tolerated his flaws but revelled in them. Coach Duncan Fletcher and a legion of old pros were less indulgent.

England's first innings was a mixed bag. The first five on the original scorecard all made starts but were ultimately defeated by Muralitharan, apart from Strauss, needlessly run out dallying on a call from Cook. Only Pietersen found an answer, and it was a thrilling one. At one point, he struck Murali for three consecutive fours through the off side, and then came that left-handed six. There was also his "flamingo shot" - pulled from wide of off stump through mid-on while standing on one leg. But there was plenty of finesse too, and solid forward defence when required. Pietersen became the first England batsman to hit three centuries in successive home Tests since Graham Gooch in 1990, and he celebrated with gusto. At 290 for five, England looked on course for a big score and an innings victory. Once Pietersen departed, though, the rest floundered. Flintoff played down the wrong line to a yorker from Malinga, whose round-arm style provoked conversation rather than controversy, and in five overs England had collapsed to 295 all out, a lead of 154.

It hardly seemed to matter as Sri Lanka struggled once more. Again, Hoggard dismissed Tharanga in his opening over, caught behind for a pair. Panesar also repeated his trick of a first-over wicket, Sangakkara hitting tamely to mid-on, and then spun one sharply past Samaraweera for a stumping. That was 56 for four, but the Sri Lankans finally rallied round the obstinacy of Vandort, who batted calmly to the close on Friday and throughout the 34 overs possible on a rain-affected Saturday, when a century partnership with Dilshan averted an innings defeat. Vandort claimed a defiant and deserved hundred on Sunday morning, and for an hour or two Sri Lanka threatened to present England with a difficult target, but two wickets in two balls from the impressive Plunkett broke their resistance. When Plunkett added Vandort, last out after six and a half hours, England needed only 78 to win.

Briefly, Murali v Pietersen provided more entertainment. Pietersen tried a more orthodox reverse sweep (an unlikely concept for anyone else) and was nearly bowled before being leg-before in the same over. Muralitharan took four wickets to finish with ten in the match, for the 15th time in Test cricket, but Cook's admirable calm saw England to a four-day victory, completed by a powerful straight drive by Flintoff.

Man of the Match: K. P. Pietersen.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack