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When good sides have bad days, they find a way to muddle through
June 3, 2011
When good sides have bad days, they find a way to muddle through. "Just find a way", in fact, was the motto that Shane Warne - the best player in the greatest side of modern times - passed down to Chris Tremlett during his days as Hampshire's captain. Although Tremlett will have to wait until the weekend to reacquaint himself with Sri Lanka's batsmen, that message was not lost on his England team-mates, who endured their worst day of Test batting since the Perth Test in December, but somehow emerged with a scoreline that did them credit.
In many ways it was wasteful; in many more it was admirable. The shock of losing three early wickets to a Sri Lankan seam attack that had been anaemic down in Cardiff was offset by four half-centuries of vastly contrasting style. Alastair Cook's intense focus wavered fatally - and surprisingly - on 96, but up until that point he had been patience personified once again. He was joined in the attrition stakes by a gutsy Ian Bell, whose recent fluency was kept under wraps by good bowling and a precarious scoreline of 22 for 3. And then, after tea, the stage was turned over to Eoin Morgan and Matt Prior, who doubled the scoreline with a clatter of free-wheeling boundaries.
"I think it's quite even," said Morgan, whose 79 from 128 balls was his first significant Test innings since his Trent Bridge century ten months ago. "We were quite pleased with the way we performed after having our backs to the wall this morning. It just did enough, and they bowled a fuller length, which was noticeable, then there were periods after lunch when we had to sit in and leave well and try to set it up for later in the day."
It was a day when all's well that ends well for England. In their constant quest for self-improvement, the management will have reason to dissect at least five of the day's six dismissals - from the flaccid flap to gully that prolonged Kevin Pietersen's run of absent form, to the open-faced poke with which Bell brought about his downfall for 52. And yet, even in those moments of strife, there was a clarity of purpose and a closing of ranks that has long been the hallmark of all the best sides. They may at times have contributed to their own dismissals, but because they were instilled with the confidence of regular victories, at no stage did England threaten a Cardiff-style capitulation.
"Because of the performances we've had recently, the communication was quite good," explained Morgan. "Guys accept when they're out and feed information back, so it was quite chilled. There were certain stages when me and Cookie were in and they bowled a channel at us to bowl maidens. We said 'fair enough, they can bowl quite wide, let them come to us'. It was quite slow, so it was hard to go after the ball."
In many respects, this was a performance reminiscent of Australia in their early-2000s heyday, not so much because England came out on top in the end, but because of the weapons they used to get to that point. At first there was dour accumulation while the going was tough at the top, with Cook and Justin Langer having more than just their left-handedness in common. Then there was a blistering counterattack in the final third of the day, with Prior and Morgan clattering along at a Gilchristian tempo as they flailed a tiring attack and somehow persuaded the ball to be served up right in their slots.
"Giving up 170 runs at 4.9 [an over] is not good enough having won the toss," said Sri Lanka's batting coach, Marvan Atapattu, who admitted that his team had set their sights on a sub-300 total once Cook's dismissal had reduced England to 201 for 5. And yet, how often were such sentiments expressed in the days when Waugh and Gilchrist comprised Australia's sixth-wicket pairing? Like a break of serve against Rafael Nadal, the challenge against the best opponents is not so much knocking them down, but knocking them out.
It's early days for England in that respect, and they have no single player who comes close to matching Gilchrist, but they've made no secret of their ambition, and amid the misgivings, this has the look of another vastly significant day in their development. "If we want to be a champion side, when our backs are to the wall we want to come out fighting," said Morgan. "We recognise that as a crucial part of our game - we can't just fall over and fold like a deck of cards."
Right at this moment, there even seems to be room in England's line-up for a luxury item. Pietersen has now contributed five runs out of 838 in the series to date, and is more likely to be included on a wishlist for a Desert Island Discs plaything, rather than a list of players to whom you would turn to bat for your life. His latest aberration spoke volumes for his scrambled mindset, as he attempted once again to slap his way out of trouble, rather than subject himself to the sort of painstaking grind that brought him his last consistent run of Test form, in Bangladesh 14 months ago.
Like Matthew Hayden at The Oval in 2005, Pietersen looks as though he needs a score by whatever means it takes, even if it means enduring an afternoon of pointing and laughing from onlookers who remember the dominant personality of old, and cannot equate it with the shell of a batsman now in their midst. Or alternatively, for as long as England keep the faith, he can just carry on trying to batter his way out of a corner, in the knowledge that he might not pull it off every day, but like his Australian counterparts Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn of old, when he clicks he will do so with a flamboyance that none of his team-mates can match.
"He works twice as hard as anybody - and he's looking good in the nets," said Morgan, with only a hint of annoyance at the raising of a familiar issue. "He's the type of character who could go out easily tomorrow and score 170. He plays match-winning innings, and has done since he's come into the side."
The wait for KP's homecoming may now have to be dragged on for at least another Test, but just as England found a way to force victory in Cardiff despite the absence of their attack leader, James Anderson, so they have found a way to cover for his and other shortcomings at Lord's. So effectively, in fact, that you wouldn't spot the mend unless you knew where the hole in the innings had been made.
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