Saker left frustrated as England fluff their lines
As the drizzle closed in during the afternoon session, there was plenty opportunity for Sky to trawl their archives, and one match in particular seemed pertinent to this situation. At The Oval in August 1998, England looked to have their destiny under control when they posted a hefty 445 in their first innings. A hard-hitting opener had other ideas, however, and once Sanath Jayasuriya had finished battering a stunned attack all across South East London, Sri Lanka had secured a first-innings lead of 146, and a day and a half to turn the screw.
At that point, however, the analogy starts to peter out. No matter how much of a lead Sri Lanka may yet secure in this Test, and despite their astute selection of five bowlers, they lack the mesmeric genius of an individual such as Muttiah Muralitharan, while England - regardless of the setbacks they've suffered in the past few days - are batting with a confidence that surely would not permit such a meltdown. Nevertheless, weather permitting, there's still enough time for England to face an awkward Cardiff-style final day, especially if they continue to ship their runs at close to four an over.
It's been a long old while since England bowled this badly in a Test match. Even at Brisbane in the opening Test of the Ashes, the 307-run stand between Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin was mitigated by an intense discipline that stretched their partnership across the best part of 100 overs. And this time last year, when Bangladesh's Tamim Iqbal appeared at times to have England's number, their unwavering faith in "the right areas" eventually sealed four Test wins out of four. At no stage in either series did England's line of attack waver to the extent they did today, a fact that David Saker, their bowling coach, conceded at the close of play.
"Over the last 12 to 18 months we've set extremely high standards, and over the last two days we've been nothing like those standards," said Saker. "For the first time, I'd probably say there are some technical issues there. I've never seen this team bowl so many balls down the leg-side, and Matty Prior had a hell of a hard job over the last two days wicketkeeping to that. That's usually a sign bowlers are falling over and not jumping straight enough through the crease. We might have to address those [issues]."
The performance of Steven Finn has made for particularly painful viewing, not least for the England management who had trusted his temperament and potential, and backed him in this match to recover from his axing in the Ashes. Instead of slotting straight back into the zone, he served up arguably the most wayward performance by an England youngster since Liam Plunkett bowled himself out of Test cricket at Old Trafford in 2007, before his best spell of the match was curtailed by the rain.
"Finny did a lot of good work with Kevin Shine and Richard Johnson after the Ashes, and came back and was looking really good - so we had no hesitation putting him in the team," said Saker. "We thought he would do a really good job, and I think he was pretty anxious to do that after the Ashes Tests. But he showed some really good rhythm in that last hour - so we walked off the ground feeling a little bit more buoyant."
As in Plunkett's case, however, Finn was not alone in his struggles, because his senior partners also forgot their side of the bargain. Steve Harmison had a shocker in that contest against West Indies four years ago, and today it was Stuart Broad who fluffed his lines - and lengths - as Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene clobbered him at close to five an over. Certainly there was none of the painstaking support that Broad had provided to James Anderson in that Gabba contest, when his 33 wicketless overs leaked just 72 runs all told.
Anderson's absence has been felt for so many reasons, but not for the ones that would have grabbed all the attention. His skiddier line of attack and movement both ways through the air and off the pitch might well have provided something else for Sri Lanka to think about, other than intermittent splice-rattlers from Chris Tremlett and his beanpole cohorts. But more importantly, his stump-to-stump discipline and control with the new ball are the factors that have really gone astray in this game.
"What we usually have done is bowl well together, but we didn't seem to do that, and that's probably the most disappointing part," said Saker. "We think we've got a really good crop of fast bowlers, not just here but back-up ready to slot in, but losing your leader with the ball is always going to be hard. Jimmy in particular has been outstanding. We expect him to bowl his first 16 overs for 30 runs, and that sets the scene for us to really attack with the other bowlers.
"We're hoping to get him back, but I don't think we should be hiding behind Jimmy's absence here," he added. "We should be better than that. We set higher standards, and just to lose one player and bowl the way we did ... I don't think that's excusable. The wicket was quite flat - we've scored 480 on it, so we knew it was going to be hard work. But we knew Dilshan was going to bat that way; we've seen enough of him to know that he can be a difficult man to get out and can take the game away from you really quickly."
Anderson has announced his readiness to return to action at the Rose Bowl, but between now and then England have two days in which to guard against further hiccups. There was a definite sign of improvement shortly before the weather closed in, as Tremlett squashed Dilshan's thumb for the third time in the series before Finn followed up with a good-length ball to bowl him. But with their pride back intact after the horrors of Cardiff, Sri Lanka are unlikely to settle for anything less than a first-innings lead, especially with Jayawardene hunting his third century in as many trips to Lord's.
"We are a bit disappointed the rain has come here, otherwise there would definitely be a result in this match," said Dilshan. "We need a result because we are already 1-0 down, and we came here to win, because there's no point in coming for a draw. If it doesn't rain, we [should] pass England's score, bat one or two sessions tomorrow, get a lead of 100 to 150 runs, and put pressure on England's batting."
It's all a remarkable turnaround from the events of the start of the week in Cardiff, though Dilshan was proud to reiterate his faith in the players at his disposal. "You can't say after 25 overs we are a bad batting line-up," he said. "We have a lot of experience in Sanga, Mahela, Thilan [Samaraweera] and myself. Forget about everything that happened in Cardiff. We came here strong-minded and played our brand of cricket, and proved here we're still strong enough to play good cricket. We're really happy with the last two days."
Saker, understandably, was less chuffed, and admitted that the ease of the Cardiff win might have had some underlying effect on the attitude of his attack. "The danger for a cricketer is disrespecting the game," he said. "When you have good days, you sometimes become lackadaisical. If you do that in this game, it has a habit of biting you on the bottom pretty quickly.
"It's more a sub-conscious thing," he added. "When you're bowling a side out for 80, you think it's just going to happen again. Cricketers, and people in general sometimes, take things for granted. I don't think we did that; I just thought our execution wasn't as good as it has been, and the opposition played very well."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo