England run out of excuses
There is a saying teams use when they run out of excuses that "things can only get better". That was the feeling for England at Lord's for the first one-dayer against Sri Lanka, never mind for the second at The Oval. Today, after losing by the most comprehensive margin of eight wickets to emphatically lose the series, the blasé excuses of indifference to one-day cricket; to the lack of their big-guns and a regular captain no longer hold water. Forget building towards the 2007 World Cup; there are toddlers in nappies with a better chance of holding aloft the trophy for England, and they know it.
Bar another impressively mature display from Jamie Dalrymple with bat and ball, no other positive can be taken from England's woeful effort. Most worryingly, there are little signs of them learning from their frequent, basic mistakes. Never were Sri Lanka's batsmen made to work for the required 262 runs, or take undue risks to force the pace. The only risk-taking on show came from Andrew Strauss, in choosing who would bowl the next over. He might have brought himself on, such was the waywardness of Steve Harmison and co.
Not for years have England bowled this poorly, this weakly or shown such blatant incompetence to the shorter format. Indeed, Sajid Mahmood has surely been smashed out of the World Cup, and Liam Plunkett (whose batting potential gives him an extra tick in Duncan Fletcher's book) isn't too far behind. Sri Lanka, though, they have outplayed England with commanding batting throughout the series. The delicious feast on offer - would sir like a wide or five? - was a treat to watch, as Sri Lanka devoured each and every wayward bowler with righteous contempt. It was embarrassing.
Talking of which, it was only 12 months ago that England were shoulder-barging Bangladesh out of the way to give them an easy series-win in the two Tests. That victory, too, was decidedly embarrassing to behold but now, though, it is England on the receiving end. Unlike Bangladesh, there won't be any sympathy on offer. Wholesale changes might be expected, but quite who they should pick - this is a young second-string team, after all - is a conundrum for another day.
To say Sri Lanka have outplayed their hosts does them an utter, outrageous disservice. Even at the toss today, which Sri Lanka lost, Mahela Jayawardene was grinning like a Cheshire, eager to bash the knife in and give it a series-winning twist. There was a diffidence and coyness to his demeanour at the start of the Test series, in which he stood next to, and was towered over by, Andrew Flintoff. In recent weeks, especially since their fabulous victory in the final Test at Trent Bridge, he has grown in stature immeasurably.
After restricting England, on a flat pitch, to 261, his wonderfully flowing 126 followed 66 at The Oval and 33 at Lord's. Not only has his captaincy been faultless on the field (as captaincy is inevitably described in the wake of a series-victory), but he has led with the bat with conviction. Yes, Sri Lanka has dominated this series, but his seventh one-day hundred spoke volumes of a man determined to take his side as far into the World Cup as possible. In fact, why not to the final and beyond?
Their path this year has been extraordinary. Never mind ridding themselves of the underdog label during this tour, they are a team transformed from the nightmare season in India and New Zealand, in which they lost nine out of ten one-dayers. They didn't fare much better in the VB Series against Australia and South Africa and, to compound matters, even faced the ignominy of losing to Bangladesh in February.
You sense a similarly dramatic turnaround is needed from England if they are to even dream of reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup but, with so little time left until the Caribbean carnage gets underway, it could all be too late. Their smooth progression in the last three months not only signals a richness of talent and steely determination, but also of a side who thrive on triumph over adversity. England have been humbled, but don't expect them to be the last to be tripped up by Jayawardene's side.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo