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May 24, 2006
At Lord's last week, English eyes started rolling towards the heavens as catch after catch went down, and that's where they will remain as the second Test prepares to get underway at a soggy Edgbaston tomorrow. With the series locked at 0-0, the weather that aided Sri Lanka's great escape at Lord's seems set, once again, to have a significant say in the contest.
It hardly feels like spring in England at present. As foul autumnal weather lashed the Midlands, both teams were driven into the indoor nets for their final practice sessions, and there they may well remain, with heavy rain forecast for much of the next few days.
England, one suspects, will be the more anxious to get out and get playing. They started the series as overwhelming favourites, but their set-back at Lord's means they have managed just one win out of eight since the Trent Bridge Test last summer. It's not all doom and gloom, as Andrew Flintoff pointed out after that match, but they do need to rekindle that winning feeling, if only to pass on the knowhow to a willing squad of understudies.
At least England have landed themselves a good ground on which to start afresh. Edgbaston has long been acknowledged as the players' favourite venue, because it boasts a patriotic football-style support that is far removed from the more austere attitudes at Lord's. It was here, famously, that England kickstarted last summer's Ashes fever with that exquisitely agonising two-run victory. After the frustrations last week, they'd probably settle for a margin half that size.
"We've had quite a deal of success at Edgbaston over the past few years. It's a ground we enjoy playing on," said Flintoff, who made his Test-best score of 167 at the venue against West Indies in 2004. And though the memories of last summer's nailbiter were clearly fresh in his mind, he was quick to emphasise that tomorrow is a new chapter.
"It was a fantastic effort but I'm not here to dwell on what happened in the Ashes last year," he insisted. "We saw last week at Lord's that Sri Lanka are a talented, fighting side. Turning up tomorrow we can't be thinking about former glories, we've got to concentrate on the job in hand."
For the second year running, England have responded to a disappointment at Lord's by keeping faith with the same set of players, and will confirm their final eleven on the morning of the match. Despite the weather conditions and his stunning early-season form, it seems that Gloucestershire's Jon Lewis will once again be the man who misses the cut. His nine-wicket haul for England A against Sri Lanka has not been forgotten, but England have long since departed from the horses-for-courses selection attitudes, and seem set to invest their faith in the five-man attack who, but for that rash of dropped catches, would have wrapped up the first Test with plenty to spare.
Sri Lanka, for their part, are equally committed to the long term. Although there has been a change at the top of their batting order, it is not the change that might have been anticipated, with Sanath Jayasuriya omitted from the shortlist of 12, and Michael Vandort coming in to partner Upul Tharanga in place of Jehan Mubarak, who made just 0 and 6 at Lord's.
"We had a lengthy discussion yesterday with the senior guys," explained Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene, whose personal success with the bat has enabled his team to rise above the political problems that dogged their build-up to the first Test. "The issue with Sanath was his experience, but Michael's Test record is actually not too bad compared to the others. We just haven't actually given him a solid run."
"When we started this tour we decided on a youth policy and we told the young guys we would give them the necessary opportunities," Jayawardene added. "If we don't do that it won't be nice. If somebody hadn't given me a chance when I was young I wouldn't be here now. By the end of the year we should have two openers who could play consistently for us for another four or five years."
The most exciting addition to Sri Lanka's squad, however, is the 22-year-old paceman, Lasith Malinga - nicknamed "the Slinger" for his extraordinary round-arm catapulting delivery. He didn't make the cut at Lord's as Sri Lanka opted for a seventh batsman and a safety-first policy, but having captured just six English wickets in two days of toil, their selectors have sensed the need for a sharper edge to their attack.
"He's quite difficult, especially with his action and the pace that he generates, and he does offer us something different," said Jayawardene. "Every time he plays he puts his hand up and says he wants to have a crack at the English. It would be great to give him that opportunity, but it all depends upon what kind of combination we want to play on the Edgbaston wicket."
The wicket itself is something of an unknown quantity, having never before been used for a Test match. The groundsman, Steve Rouse, was forced to use a virgin strip after the two most central wickets were damaged over the winter. The decision has caused something of a row within the corridors of power at Edgbaston, with Rouse blaming a fireworks display for the damage, and Warwickshire's new CEO, Colin Povey, hitting back by accusing him of making "loaded comments".
Despite all the squabbling, some might see it as a good omen, because the 2005 Test was also overshadowed by an improbable pre-match incident - a bizarre tornado that ripped through nearby streets and flooded the outfield to change the character of the pitch. It worked in England's favour then, and assuming the rain relents this week, it could do so again now.
It's a big if, however. According to local reports, play is unlikely to get underway before lunch tomorrow if there is any more rain overnight, which means further frustration could be in store for England's cricketers. For the time being at least, they have mislaid the art of winning.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Alastair Cook, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Sajid Mahmood, 11 Monty Panesar.
Sri Lanka (from) 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Michael Vandort, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 7 Farveez Maharoof, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Nuwan Kulasekara, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Lasith Malinga, 12 Chamara Kapugedera.
Alastair Cook has got used to feeling of the axe hanging over him. Only his team-mates can save England now
They have to see a glass that is half-full, and play the game as if it is just that, a game; and an opportunity