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June 20, 2011
A grand total of 369 overs were lost to the rain in the course of England's three Tests against Sri Lanka - which is roughly 26 and a half hours' worth of play, or nearly four full days out of a possible 15. It was only fitting, therefore, that on the stroke of tea on the final afternoon, yet another dirty great cloud rolled across the Rose Bowl to extinguish the final embers of a contest that, but for a crazy 24 overs in Cardiff last month, would never have come close to igniting.
If the hardy citizens of Hampshire arrived at the ground today hoping for, and maybe expecting, a similar burst of finality from England's bowlers, then at least they left with the consolation of having watched one of the game's modern greats produce an innings that has been long overdue.
Kumar Sangakkara's six-and-a-half hour 119 was the 25th century of his 97-Test career, but his first in nine attempts in England. In partnership first with the nightwatchman Rangana Herath, and then with his fellow stalwart Thilan Samaraweera, he repelled England's advances on a pitch that Andrew Strauss ruefully remarked was effectively a day three wicket.
The sting of the first day had certainly disappeared, but the application that Sangakkara showed could not be under-estimated. Had he failed to build on his overnight 44, England would surely have fancied their chances of wrapping up a 2-0 win.
"It's very satisfying," said Sangakkara at the close. "To score a hundred, especially in England, is quite an achievement coming from the subcontinent. It would have been nice to have done it at Lord's, but that's something you have to get over. It's nice to finally get there."
In the final reckoning, the innings does little to redress the imbalance of Sangakkara's Test average in England. His mark now stands at 30.58, which is barely half his overall figure of 56.18, and he admitted that it had taken him longer to adjust to the bounce and movement in this country - a process not helped by his belated arrival from the IPL in India.
"I just kept getting out," he said. "When I first came to England [in 2002] I was a bit at sea and tried to make some adjustments, but was not getting anywhere. Second time around I had two opportunities [66 and 65], one at Lord's when I got out to Monty Panesar. So coming here from the IPL it was a case of adjusting again. Not just technically but also mentally. It took me a bit too long to do that."
Nevertheless, there was some satisfaction to be gleaned from Sri Lanka's final-day performance. At times on this tour, with the bat in Cardiff and with the old ball in most of England's innings, they have performed with the fragility of a side ranked far lower than their No. 4 billing. It was important, therefore, to make a statement of the class that still exists in their cricket since the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan.
"Cricket is all about continuously improving what you can do and what you can do as a team," he said. "And what you can achieve if you perform as a team collectively. Our ambition now has to be to consolidate with the players we have, the ability we have and find new ways of winning Test matches. We don't have Muralitharan any more, we don't have [Chaminda] Vaas. For us to win, we have to find different avenues. That's the thing for us. Those are the questions we need to answer in the months ahead."
But for that crazy session in Cardiff, Sri Lanka would have escaped with a drawn series, and Sangakkara was well aware of that fact. "That was probably the biggest regret on this tour," he said. "None of us were switched on to that situation really. We just needed to bat consistently for 25 or 30 overs - just one pair to put on a proper partnership on a wicket that was flatter than this one. It just goes to show that one mistake, two mistakes, can magnify a situation that we should have been capable of handling nine times out of ten."
With the debutant Lahiru Thiramanne demonstrating a technique and temperament that enabled him to survive on a tricky surface and, in all likelihood, to thrive on more benign ones, Sri Lanka's batting still looks capable of sustaining their status in the world game. England's more powerful bowlers made the difference in this rubber, as they continue to push towards the No. 1 spot, but Sangakkara refused to believe that his team's days as a top-ranked side are numbered.
"I think all the sides in the top six have their eye on that prize," he said. "We do too. But for us to do that, we need to improve our record away from home. England has a great all-round side and I think they can realistically achieve that ambition. But there are sides to beat, milestones to achieve along the way. We just have to wait and see if the teams battling for that position can deliver."
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