England v Sri Lanka, 2nd ODI, The Oval June 20, 2006

England sinking without a trace



Sanath Jayasuriya was an inspiration for Sri Lanka with 122 and three wickets © Getty Images
It is hard to imagine that it was just nine months since England enjoyed their finest day here at The Oval. Today, in the second of five one-dayers against Sri Lanka, the contrast could not have been more stark. Not only were they wearing their pyjamas, but their talisman is in Germany, they're playing one-day cricket, and they look all at sea. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, show no signs of dropping their hosts a lifeboat.

It was all so predictable, too. England start well, Sri Lanka look nervy; Sri Lanka build and build and build; Sanath Jayasuriya hits his 20th hundred; England fight back with a cluster of wickets but it's all too little too late. The less said about the batting the better.

Their display in the field - when Mahela Jayawardene and Jayasuriya battered England with the same frenzy as an unpaid chipshop worker - was lacklustre and limp, at best. At worst, the bowlers failed to do the basics. The bowling at Lord's received criticism from all corners, and rightly so. That they are inexperienced and wet behind the ears is besides the point; a wide is a wide in any form of cricket, be it on the green with friends or on a sun-baked belter against the world's best.

If England were generous at Lord's, when they gifted 23 wides and 42 extras, they were positively curmudgeonly today offering just 21 wides. Jayawardene and Jayasuriya, who won the Man-of-the-Match award, creamed and crunched the bowling with such ease, such elegance and dominance, that you wondered whether England were playing the same game. Had they mistakenly expected the big screen to be showing England's footballers face Sweden? The hunched shoulders and resigned looks of despair during the middling overs - in which bowlers are supposed not only to keep it tight, but make crucial breakthroughs - showed a team so out of form and so missing their "big guns" that one half expected to see distress flairs lit from the changing room. Or even from the stands.

One particular occasion rather summed up England's predicament. When Jamie Dalrymple collected Ian Bell's throw to run out Jayawardene, he congratulated himself by hurling the ball into the pitch by his feet and bellowing vocal applause to anyone who would listen. It smacked more of frustration than a fervent desire to turn things around. Throwing one's toys out of the pram at this stage of proceedings looks a bit silly, and not something England can afford to do, particularly with so few games left until the World Cup in the Caribbean.



Steve Harmison was a rare positive for England, but there wasn't much else © Getty Images
Only Dalrymple and Kevin Pietersen stood in Sri Lanka's way, after Steve Harmison had bowled beautifully (and menacingly) in his 10-over spell. Pietersen, in particular, appears to have been playing for England for ever; his murderous hitting was, though, temporarily disabled by injuring his knee. As if the situation couldn't worsen, he later injured his bat, too. Despite the farce, even without a proper bat, and with just one limb left, he was England's only hope. His beautiful knock not only highlighted his importance to England, in all forms of cricket, but that he too is human when he fell to Jayasuriya. He alone cannot win England a one-day match on a regular basis - and nor should he have to, something Andrew Strauss spoke of in the post-match press conference

"We've just got to be patient," Strauss said, "there's no point in hitting panic stations or anything like that. [Paul] Collingwood can play any number of ways, and he got 50 off 50-odd balls today...Jamie Dalrymple has shown he [can] play a very useful role at six. But, more than anything, it's the top-order [who need to score].

"We haven't had a one-day hundred for a while and we need a couple in the rest of this series if we're to come back and win it."

Sri Lanka have no such trouble scoring hundreds. After Upul Tharanga's crisp effort at Lord's, Jayasuriya rolled back the years to belt his 20th one-day hundred. He bowled beautifully too, as he so often does. Despite their crushing win, Sri Lanka weren't faultless in the field either, which Jayawardene made mention of in the post-match press conference.

"We wanted someone to bat through the innings and make a big score, so others can bat around him," he said, "and Jayasuriya did that beautifully today. The only disappointment was the fielding. The standard wasn't up there, we made mistakes, a few dropped catches but we will make sure it doesn't happen again."

Jayasuriya, when asked about whether England's intensity was quite the same following the glut of injuries, was insistent that Sri Lanka paid no attention to the difficulties their hosts find themselves in. "Well, we have injuries too. That's no excuse," he said. "They are representing their countries and are playing their best team. Injuries happen. [sic]"

No let-up, then, from Sri Lanka whose confidence is fast leading them to a series victory. One more win, at the Riverside on Saturday, will do just that and cap an impressive, and unlikely, summer of the fortune of the underdog. England, wounded and scarred, might yet turn this around - but not without several memorable performances from their top-order...and not just Pietersen.

Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo