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May 14, 2006
In his 52-match, 202-wicket career, Matthew Hoggard has scarcely looked as enraged as he did when Andrew Strauss at third slip spilled a regulation chance off Mahela Jayawardene, midway through today's morning session. It was Strauss's second miss of the match and England's second in six balls, after Paul Collingwood's goalkeeper parry off Farveez Maharoof in the previous over.
Jayawardene had been on 58 at the time, an excellent and watchful innings that had shown his team-mates how to combat the conditions after a dismal showing in the first half of the match. But as his team-mate, Kumar Sangakkara, had said the previous evening, it would take more than just cameos if Sri Lanka were to set up one of the great escapes in Test history.
By the end of a truncated fourth day, Jayawardene had converted his effort from excellent to supreme. Patient and assured throughout, he drew an innings of great character from his young team-mate Farveez Maharoof, and later inspired Tillakaratne Dilshan to follow his lead and carry Sri Lanka ever closer to that improbable outcome. Like Ricky Ponting at Old Trafford last summer, a mighty captain's rearguard had eventually to be ended in the cruellest manner possible, as he gloved a leg-side catch to Geraint Jones with the shadows of the evening beginning to creep.
That take, a marginal call that Jones admitted had been claimed in hope as much as expectation, happened to be his 100th in Tests. Appropriately, given that his lapses are as much talked about as his achievements, the issue of the day was not so much the chances that stuck, but the ones that got away.
Six in all have now gone down - a tally sufficient to have wrapped this match up with an innings to spare. Jones twice, Strauss twice, Collingwood and Alastair Cook, and if, up on the balcony, Duncan Fletcher's sunken-jowled posture was anything to go by, there'll be some extra drills for the slip cordon in the morning.
"There are no excuses for dropped catches," admitted Jones. "You don't mean to - and I should know that more than most - but unfortunately a couple went down today. Catches win matches, and though it's something we practice really hard at every morning, it does hurt when you do drop them."
There is a sense that England have lacked urgency since the midway point of the match. At 91 for 6 chasing 551 Sri Lanka were dead in the water, but as soon as their batsman became accustomed to the pace of the game, the perils of enforcing the follow-on came once again to the fore. England's bowlers have now been in the field for 186 consecutive overs, and the miles in their legs were graphically displayed when Andrew Flintoff traipsed off late in the day to attend to a popped blister.
Flintoff himself has bowled 48 of those overs, a worrying workload for someone so critical to England's fortunes in this summer and beyond. "It's something's he's aware of and the medical staff are watching," said Jones, "but that's just Fred. He's wholehearted and he'll keep running in until last wicket has fallen. He gives everything for the team."
It might not matter so much if Flintoff was not captain, but in the circumstances it meant his underuse of Panesar was baffling. The new crowd favourite was limited to a four-over burst to speed along the availability of the new ball, and was then ignored for the rest of the day, but for two exploratory overs as bad light began to close in for the first time. Spinners, said Shane Warne earlier this week, need a lot of love from their captains. For someone so embracing of his team-mates' needs, Freddie seemed strangely stand-offish on this occasion.
Mind you, he probably imagined that one swift blow and the house of cards would come tumbling down. "Waking up this morning, we were probably thinking of bowling well and wrapping the game up," admitted Jones. "But to be fair, Mahela's batted fantastically well, it's a placid wicket and there's little margin for error." Too much margin for error, as far as the slip cordon is concerned.
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