Vaas teaches his batsmen a lesson in defence
Not so long ago, the tailender's sole contribution to a Test match was more for the crowd's entertainment than the benefit of the team. Fours squirted through gully and top-edged over slip; a cameo of 15 received the same tumultuous applause as a rearguard 150. All that has changed, however, and today Chaminda Vaas gave a lesson in the art of lower-order batting - one which his more gifted team-mates would do well to take note of.
While all the talk in the build up to this Test has involved Sri Lanka's recalled left-hander, Sanath Jayasurya, it was Vaas, the No. 9 and another southpaw, who provided the standout performance. Yet when he arrived at the crease the advantage of batting first was being wasted: Sri Lanka were 129 for 7 and facing certain capitulation. Again. However, while his colleagues battled to contend with the prodigious swing England's bowlers produced, Vaas was calmness personified. It was as if to say "What's all the fuss about, lads?"
Perhaps with one eye on his upcoming duties with the ball in his hand, Vaas made his top-order team-mates (not to mention England's bowlers) look rather foolish. With an impressively watertight defence, he defied England - who scented an early tea and the chance to bat on a glorious day at Nottingham - with ease, before opening his shoulders to extend Sri Lanka's total past the psychologically-important milestone of 200. After putting on 30 with Lasith Malinga, it was with Muttiah Muralitharan that he put on the day's most unlikely partnership, worth 62.
Kumar Sangakkara, who has looked in fine form all summer without converting his starts into sizeable contributions, was full of praise for Vaas. "He's done a great job, averaging well beyond 70 with the bat in five innings, which is a fantastic job especially as we have to face the fact he has gone in in tough situations, having to stay at the wicket and grind his innings out," he said.
"He's usually a free-flowing batsman who'll give us another 50 runs at the end of a big innings. But it shows his experience and character, and he enjoys himself when he plays his cricket out there. We've looked to him to get wickets and now we look to him to get runs and he's done both."
Murali - who must be licking his lips in anticipation of bowling in the heat tomorrow - is an old-school No. 11 - and he knows it. He bats for fun, and takes pride and obvious pleasure slapping (how else do you describe a one-footed, one-handed, unsighted biff over midwicket?) bowlers deep into cow corner, where they are later to be found grazing with frustration. Vaas is more orthodox and, on the basis of his innings this series, ought to be promoted in Sri Lanka's second outing if they are to rectify their first-innings difficulties. There is no great flourish to Vaas' batting, though. Like his bowling, he is economical and neat, treating each ball watchfully while intelligently aware of the possibility of a single or two. He looked relaxed and accomplished at the crease.
All of a sudden, with England eyeing a cuppa, batting was made to look surprisingly easy and England had egg on their faces. Not for the first time this summer.
Remarkably, Vaas has faced more balls (406) this series than anyone else. More than his captain, Jayawardene, who stroked a hundred and a fifty at Lord's; more than Kevin Pietersen, who has scythed two hundreds and a mountain of runs. Vaas is Sri Lanka's fourth highest run-scorer this series alone and, while his contributions can't be judged on the weight of runs, his refusal to be dismissed cheaply or lazily saved Sri Lanka from hanging out a premature white flag.
Solid though Vaas batted, his innings ought to provide a lesson to Duncan Fletcher and England who cannot have enjoyed the eleventh-wicket partnership of 62 unnecessary runs. Although it was a much-improved fielding performance - Alastair Cook's spill at square leg was the only missed chance - their assumption that Sri Lanka's tail would fold cheaply smacked of complacency. Australia's tail won't be so forgiving in November - never mind Pakistan's in July. Too often, Vaas and Muralitharan were allowed to drive and they took full advantage of the treats on offer. As seriously as Murali takes his batting, I bet even he chuckled when he punched gloves with Vaas on reaching their fifty partnership.
The momentum shifted to Sri Lanka markedly and, after winkling out Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, the visitors will enjoy their dinner this evening rather more than they could have expected to earlier in the day.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo