Belief allows England to win from nowhere
You know you've witnessed an extraordinary sporting achievement when even the protagonists admit they've been shocked by the turn of events. When Andrew Strauss drew back his hotel curtains this morning to be greeted by that familiarly bleak shadow of drizzle that has been Cardiff's daily wake-up call this week, not even he could have predicted the epic denouement that played out on Monday afternoon.
Despite the offer of free entry, barely 300 punters turned up to watch the closing stages of the match, as Cardiff's sporting faithful were plunged into despair both by the weather and by Swansea's promotion to football's Premier League, a feat that was achieved just as Sri Lanka's collapse started to gather pace. Nevertheless, for Strauss and his men, context was irrelevant, as they geed themselves up for their own private grandstand finish, and quite literally caught their opponents cold on a day that, in Glamorgan's pre-drainage days, would unquestionably have been a wash-out.
"This will go down as one of the most extraordinary cricket matches any of us have ever played," said Strauss afterwards. "This morning I was saying it has been one of the drabbest cricket matches I've ever played, and suddenly it's changed around so quickly, and that's a great credit to the guys this afternoon. We were very keen to press for a victory but we thought it was a long shot to achieve it, but right from ball one the two seamers set the tone and were backed up well in the field. Once we got the pressure on we managed to sniff out the victory pretty well."
England's resolve in the field was remarkable, given the apparently futile match situation as well as the absence of James Anderson, who succumbed to a side strain on the second day of the game and will play no part in Friday's second Test at Lord's. In a performance reminiscent of their second innings in Adelaide, when Stuart Broad had been the attack's absentee, the rest of the bowlers closed ranks superbly and allowed no let-up in intensity. Each of the team's last five victories have now come by an innings, and Sri Lanka's total of 82 is the fifth time in ten Tests that their opponents have been rolled for double-figures.
"I was impressed by our intensity because it would have been easy to go through the motions," said Strauss. "It's a tricky time to bat, for 50-odd overs with nothing much to gain, and if you can get early wickets, then pressure starts to play a pretty big part. I was very impressed by our ruthlessness in Australia and this was a good example for me. The full pressure of Test match cricket comes to bear quite quickly. You need guys to stand up and get past that, and thankfully we were good enough to prevent any of their batsmen doing that."
The crucial incisions were made by Chris Tremlett, a bowler of whom it will never again be said lacks the heart to play at the highest level. From his five-wicket haul in his comeback innings in Perth, via his Ashes-clinching contributions at Melbourne and Sydney, and now through to his brutal burst of 4 for 40 in ten overs, he has forged a reputation as towering as his physique. None of Sri Lanka's batsmen fancied his offerings one little bit, as the openers were extracted in the space of his first eight deliveries, before Mahela Jayawardene received a peach of an off-stump lifter that demanded a stride forward but burst off the edge to slip nonetheless. At 33 for 3 with more than 30 overs of daylight still in prospect, the game was England's to grasp there and then.
In Strauss's opinion, however, it was the scalp of Kumar Sangakkara that truly confirmed the destiny of the match. Graeme Swann had always envisaged a role in the Sri Lankan second innings, partly to atone for his anonymous effort on this ground in the 2009 Ashes, and partly because the wicket kept getting slower and lower as the game wore on. Even he, however, might have considered a burst of 4 for 1 in ten balls to be excessive. Rangana Herath's wild swing across the line was brainless, but by that stage Sangakkara had been beaten by a deliciously flighted tweaker that slipped off the edge to slip, and from that moment on, Sri Lanka were geared for surrender.
"It's very difficult to explain," said Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sri Lanka's bewildered captain. "I can't believe we got out in just 25 overs with such a good batting line-up like we have. We lost the match because we batted really badly today. It will be difficult to forget this Test match but we have to stick together as a team, do whatever we can outside of cricket to get together, and forget about everything."
Strauss, for his part, believed that the momentum for England's victory had been generated by the decision to bat on in the afternoon session and allow Ian Bell to pick off the two runs he needed to record his 13th Test hundred. The landmark ate up 20 minutes of the day's play, for the addition of five runs to the total, but the difference it made to the general mood within the dressing room proved critical on a day when, at one stage, there were no more than 39 people sat on the city side of the ground.
"That was one of the big challenges for us, to create our own feeling of intensity," said Strauss. "It was obviously a small crowd - and they got into it and all credit for doing so - but you can't blame people for staying away given what the weather was doing this morning. But those sort of things are always a test for you as a side. It's about how desperately you want to win. We really wanted it today, and we got what we deserved.
"The thought did cross our mind whether we should declare and have extra few overs at Sri Lanka, but I think [batting on] was the right thing to do," Strauss added. "Bell thoroughly deserved a hundred by the way he played yesterday, and it allowed us to go onto the field with a real good buzz, and sprightly feel, whereas if he hadn't been allowed to do it things would have been more melancholy."
There was, of course, a memorable precedent for declaring on 98 not out, at Sydney in 1994-95, when Mike Atherton famously denied Graeme Hick his first - and only - century against Australia. Atherton subsequently conceded that had been the wrong decision, as England's previously sparky performance gave way to a double-century stand between Mark Taylor and Michael Slater, and a draw where a victory might once have been.
Players often play down the value of personal milestones, but on days such as these, when only a performance of absolute commitment could have turned the tables, Strauss's call was utterly vindicated. Would Bell have been so sharp under the helmet to Thisara Perera had he been privately brooding about the one that got away?
Had England failed to close out a game in which more than a day-and-a-half had been lost to the weather, there would have been few recriminations, especially after the potency of their batting. However, in the first Test since the scaling of their personal Everest in Australia back in January, it was a mighty impressive return to the base camp of their ambitions. "We'll be very buoyant heading to Lord's," admitted Strauss. "But it's all back to square one now."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo