Mahmood makes his mark in seamer's paradise
Ever since the English season was extended to incorporate Tests in May, Lord's has been the scene of an inordinate number of slaughters. Gone are the days when it was a visiting side's favoured venue - these days any team that arrives in the wrong half of the season is sure to be cut to ribbons by a slavering pack of seamers.
Zimbabwe in 2000 and 2003, Pakistan in 2001, New Zealand in 2004 and Bangladesh this time last year. Each has arrived to be confounded by the slope, the zip, and the joie de vivre of a team newly reunited after their winter's break. The defeats have ranged from an emphatic seven wickets to a thumping innings-and-261, and though the Sri Lankans bucked the trend on their last visit in 2002, they are about to get their comeuppance in the most comprehensive manner imaginable.
Weather permitting, England could and should wrap this match up tomorrow afternoon, and the fact that the star of the show could well be Sajid Mahmood is testament to the extraordinary breadth of the current England squad. To think they were floundering through an injury crisis on the eve of this match. Mahmood's success, coupled with that of Alastair Cook and the instant recuperation of Marcus Trescothick, shows that the 12-man base of last summer has been widened and deepened with remarkable speed and improbably few teething troubles.
Prior to this match, there had been some debate as to whether England should opt for the honest job-a-day seamer, Jon Lewis, who routed the Sri Lankans in the England A match at Worcester and could have been relied upon to deliver a quick kill, or plan for the future and blood another young quick with a view to bouncier climes Down Under this winter.
It seems a no-brainer in hindsight. Mahmood's initial burst was brisk but wayward, as he slipped repeatedly down the leg side in the manner that has undermined a number of his one-day appearances. But as soon as he'd found his line, he bounded in like a less lop-sided Alex Tudor, and swung the ball like a latter-day Simon Jones, scalping four prime wickets in the space of nine balls. Technically, one of these goes down as a run-out, but one could almost argue that Tillakaratne Dilshan was running away from the strike.
"He's explosive, he bowls ninety plus, and it's fantastic for English cricket," enthused Kevin Pietersen, who watched Mahmood at close quarters on the England A tour of India two winters ago. "He's a better bowler now. He's been at the Academy three or four times, he's spoken to a lot of experienced cricketers and become more experienced himself, and it's fantastic to see him reverse-swinging the ball at ninety miles an hour, even when the ball's only about 30 overs old."
"He's quick but different," added Pietersen. "He's skiddier than Steve Harmison who gets more bounce, but you'd want both those blokes in your side, maybe even four - Jones, Mahmood, Harmison and Flintoff - bowling ninety-plus. Batsmen wouldn't want to come up against those four."
Not for the first time in his career, England's most senior bowler was overlooked as the entire English contingent at Lord's began to lust after speed. But once again, it was the affable workhorse, Matthew Hoggard, who made the initial incisions. Zipping the ball off the pitch with a vigour that he's made his trademark, he accounted for both Sri Lanka's openers in the space of 18 balls.
Whether Jehan Mubarak and Upul Tharanga should be recorded as "lbw Hoggard" or "stumped Jayasuriya", however, is a moot point. Michael Tissera, Sri Lanka's manager, admitted he was clueless as to the match fitness of the man who seems likely to step into the opener's berth for the second Test at Edgbaston, so quite how the uncertainty will have played on the minds of two nervous and competing youngsters is anyone's guess.
"To tell you quite frankly, I don't know what Jayasuriya's done between April 21, when we left, and now," added Tissera. "I don't know whether he's played local cricket, what club practice he's had, whether his [broken] finger has mended, so until he comes here, we just don't deal with it. It's not ideal, but there's not much we can do about it, unfortunately."
The chaos in Sri Lanka's camp is a clear indication that England's dominance extends beyond the boundaries of this particular match. Mahmood should thank his lucky stars that his big occasion is not being so cruelly compromised.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo