England v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day June 5, 2006

Murali exploits the arrogance

All too often, English cricket is too quick to puff up its own importance, and since last summer, that truth has probably been more apparent than ever. But the fact remains that, while England may struggle to raise their game to the heights they reserved

Muttiah Muralitharan: an unstoppable force © Getty Images
All too often, English cricket is too quick to puff up its own importance, and since last summer, that truth has probably been more apparent than ever. But the fact remains that, while England may struggle to raise their game to the heights they reserved for the Ashes, for any opponent, regardless of where in the world they may hail, there's one scalp that rates that extra notch above all others.

That statement doubtless confirms a perception of English arrogance, but on the plus side it means that when days such as these occur, the whole world is united in gloating. This result made a mockery of all the pre-series assessments - of England's form in home Tests, where since 2003 they have won 13 out of 17 with just one defeat; and of Sri Lanka's record outside of Asia, where (with the exception of a certain memorable Test in 1998 and a handful of thumpings against Zimbabwe) they have failed to record even a drawn series since 1995.

"The win's been made much sweeter because of the way we fought," beamed a gleeful Mahela Jayawardene, who has grown visibly in the captaincy as the series has progressed. At the mid-point of the Lord's Test, as Sri Lanka followed on under the weight of a thumping 359-run deficit, it seemed they would be brushed aside in as perfunctory a manner as England reserved for the Bangladeshis last year. A 3-0 defeat was the only result imaginable. A share of the series is as shocking as it is deserved.

But then, with Muttiah Muralitharan forever lying in wait, such pre-conceptions ought never to be allowed to take hold. Murali has spent the best part of his career proving his doubters wrong. There are still a few jokers out there who prefer to carp on about his kinky elbow, rather than acknowledge the freakish genius of his helicopter wrist, but all he can do is keep wheeling away and let history be his judge. And on what may yet prove to be his final day of Test cricket in England, he could not have scripted a more satisfying performance with which to sign off.

England have long since accepted the wiles of Shane Warne as a unique and deadly opponent, but Murali has never been afforded the same level of respect. God alone knows why, because he pops up often enough to remind them of his genius. He played his part in the very first Sri Lankan win over England, way back in the mists of time on that disastrous 1992-93 tour, and five years later produced his greatest and most life-changing performance, at The Oval in 1998, where it seemed at last he had exploded a thousand preconceptions.

But eight years is a long time in cricket, and the arrogance on display then was back in force today. Monty Panesar rather sweetly summed it up last night, claiming that chasing 350 on a fourth-day track would be "fine". He meant no offence of course, and in his own crowd-rousing performance at the death he actually backed up his words with deeds, but it was symptomatic of a side that had dithered over making the killer blow for so long, their would-be victims had risen from the floor and were making a bee-line for the jugular.

To English eyes, the scorecard eventually read like one of those early-1990s horror stories against Pakistan, when the openers would add 100-odd runs in what might innocently appear to be trouble-free circumstances, only for the assassin to leap from behind the shower-curtain and starting hacking away with psychotic glee.

Andrew Strauss scratches his head in vain © Getty Images

"The thing about facing Murali," explained Andrew Flintoff afterwards, "is that when you first go in it is tough, but if you can get through that and bat for 10 or 15 minutes, it doesn't get easy but it does get easier. Unfortunately none of our batters quite got through that. You just have to take your hat off to him, because we were trying our best."

The result put into context a whole raft of mitigating circumstances. England's much-trumpeted injury concerns hardly justified the selection of Jon Lewis - effective on his first morning of Test cricket, but as toothless as anticipated when the juice went out of an unusually dry pitch - and the default excuse of inexperience hardly washes given the support cast of rookies that have helped Sri Lanka to a share of the series.

England were ambushed, fair and square. They were duped by a toothless attack at Lord's that morphed after three Tests into a perfectly balanced four-pronged ensemble, and they were derailed, for the second time in consecutive home defeats to Sri Lanka, by a pitch that played straight into the hands of the most dangerous man on the field - or, to be precise, his phalanx of eager catchers lurking around the bat.

"It's not my first-choice pitch to play Sri Lanka on," admitted Flintoff, while Jayawardene was fulsome in his appreciation of Trent Bridge's hospitality. "On a hard wicket like this, [Murali] gets bounce, even with the topspinner and doosra. On the subcontinent the wickets are much softer, so you might not get the same bounce, even if there's more spin."

But if England were complacent about the threat that Murali posed, then Jayawardene gave a tacit admission that it was only to be expected. "That was probably one of his best performances," he shrugged, "But there have been quite a few. He does this on quite a regular basis, so it's probably in his top ten or whatever."

Personally, I'd suggest it's right up there in his top two. But then that's probably just my English arrogance kicking in. There's been a fair amount of it floating around this season.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo