Sri Lanka v England, 4th ODI, Colombo October 10, 2007

Collingwood's men confound expectations



Toiling with reward: James Anderson and his team-mates have delivered an impressive series win © Getty Images
Some might say it is typical of England that they should finally crack 50-over cricket at precisely the moment that the rest of the world is tiring of the concept. But nevertheless their achievement in Sri Lanka over the past two weeks has been noteworthy in the extreme. Paul Collingwood's men have just completed England's first series victory in the subcontinent since 1987, and overturned the Sri Lankans on home soil for the first time ever.

This result follows on from England's impressive 4-3 home victory against India in September, and is further evidence of the steely streak that has been injected into England's game by Collingwood, their first specialist limited-overs captain since Adam Hollioake (who, coincidentally, was the last man to triumph anywhere in Asia, in Sharjah in 1997-98).

More's the pity, therefore, that England blotted their limited-overs copybook in the World Twenty20 last month. But that side was as experimental as the format itself, with specialist selections such as Darren Maddy and James Kirtley enjoying mixed success on their return to top-level cricket. This squad has brought back men such as Ian Bell, who now exhibits a sense of belonging, and shown the sort of solidity that England's one-day side have lacked ever since Graham Gooch's mob failed to win the World Cup in 1992.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, remember this - Sri Lanka were World Cup finalists in Barbados six months ago, and deservedly so. No other side in that interminable competition was fit to lace the Australians' boots, and even in defeat it's arguable that Sri Lanka contained the best allround bowling attack on show, with the stalwarts Chaminda Vaas and Dilhara Fernando allied to the two key impact players, Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan.

Murali of course has been missing from this competition, and without him Sri Lanka have struggled for variation on a selection of stodgy wickets. But Malinga has been mastered almost throughout - his spells have been milked at almost a run a ball, and he's taken no more wickets in the entire series than he managed in four deliveries against South Africa.

Set against such shortcomings, however, is Sri Lanka's formidable record on home soil - which ought to have been worth at least a 2-0 lead. Until the second match at Dambulla, England had not won a single ODI against Sri Lanka at home since 1982, but they were hardly unique in their lack of success. Since 1994, Sri Lanka had lost only two bilateral series out of 11, and dropped only five games in those contests - three to Australia in a hard-fought five-match series in 2003-04, and two to Pakistan in March 2006.

It was Pakistan's superior bowling attack that delivered that last win, and that was the difference between the sides once again. England's pace attack of Ryan Sidebottom, James Anderson and Stuart Broad was insuperable, providing pace, hostility and above all, accuracy. The days of Sajid Mahmood, Liam Plunkett and Steve Harmison, whose guileless scatterguns helped Sri Lanka to a crushing 5-0 victory in 2006, seemed a distant and troubling memory.

Between them, Sidebottom, Broad and Anderson kept Sri Lanka's top four completely under wraps - they mustered just 348 runs between them and two half-centuries, which is barely any more than the 286 that Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga added for the first wicket at Headingley in 2006. Between them they ensured that Andrew Flintoff - the pre-series talking-point - was barely worthy of a footnote.

Nor was Flintoff missed for his allround qualities. Graeme Swann's ice-cool return made Monty Panesar an equally redundant topic of conversation, while Collingwood's confidence in his own abilities on Sri Lanka's dead wickets elevated him almost to frontline-seamer status, with five economical wickets at 28.20, more than any of Sri Lanka's bowlers bar Fernando. Even at the lowest reaches of the order, England brimmed with confidence, with Broad and Sidebottom seeing England home in a tense third game at Dambulla.

Sadly for England, their best overseas ODI result in years (leaving aside their astonishing CB Series win against a tired and pre-occupied Australia) comes at precisely the wrong time for anyone to take any interest. The World Cup (50-over or 20-over) is too far over the horizon for any of this to be remembered in the long run, while a World Cup of another kind is currently stealing all column inches back home. But Collingwood and his men will savour this triumph. If 50-over cricket really is in its death throes, then at least they've turned up in time for the wake.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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