The tale of two balls, one winner and a piece of history
This is the amazing story of the penultimate ball. A tale of two Tests that lasted their full five days and went to the wire. The story of one, maybe two, millimetres denying the England team and of one ball remaining when the Sri Lanka team created their piece of history. There are sub-plots galore but the climax is why we go back to the well. It matters not a jot how many Tests you have seen, the surprises keep coming.
At Lord's, barely more than a week ago, Stuart Broad bowled the penultimate ball of the first Test needing one wicket to secure England's deserved victory. He tore in at Nuwan Pradeep who, if not quite a rabbit, is no Geoff Boycott either.
The ball was fast, full and straight. Just the job. Pradeep bravely pushed forward to meet it with his pad. There was this tremendous thud, followed by an equally tremendous roar as eleven apoplectic Englishmen appealed to the umpire. Without hesitation, the umpire responded in their favour. Plumb. At the raise of this right Australian forefinger, the Englishmen went nuts. The match was won. The new era had started with an almighty bang.
Almost. Pradeep had other ideas. He immediately shook his head in a splendidly dramatic panic. He marched towards the umpire and then he thought, hang on, we can find justice in this injustice. And so he signalled that he wanted the decision reviewed. For all the stick that comes the way of the DRS, it sure provides theatre. And, more often than not, the truth.
Oh god, a review, thought all England. Yippee, a review, thought a little island off the South East coast of India. The process is painful. First the no-ball. Fine there, a legal delivery. Then Hot Spot. Hang on, hang on, goodness gracious, golly me. He hit it. Nuwan hit the damn thing. Justice!
The result of the Test may well have changed because some bloke applied the science of friction to the impact of ball on bat. Tell that one to Fred Trueman. I know, you can't, but...well, it beggars belief. Obviously, anti-climactically the last ball was resisted by the exultant Pradeep. Mind you, only just. Broad's excellent delivery found the edge of Pradeep's bat and it flew to second slip. Trouble was, it bounced before it got there, Match saved. Miracle. Everyone gob-smacked.
Fast forward eight days, to the penultimate ball of the match. That's the second Test. It is Shaminda Eranga this time, bowling to James Anderson not long before dusk. Jimmy has a happy knack of saving Tests. It is not that he can bat that well, just that he has a heart the size of a lion. Anderson had faced 55 balls over 81 minutes without scoring a single run. But he had given hope that the match might be saved. At the other end, the simply magnificent Moeen Ali had brought expectation to proceedings. Expectation of escape.
Now if you wanted to slag off Moeen, you damn well could. I mean, fancy not nicking the strike to save Jimmy from himself (Joke.) Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. Balls 51 to 54 were superbly handled. Two remained to save the match, a task incidentally that no other team in history that had been five down going into the last day of a Test had achieved.
Eranga sprinted up the Headingley hill. He flung the leather short and hard at Anderson's throat. If only Anderson had ducked, or swayed, or slipped, or fell. But he didn't. See Moeen, Jimmy tried to play this frightening missile with his bat, or glove, or hand, or wrist or something. From his bat, it ballooned up in the air and was caught. If it had been you Moeen, no problem. You are a marvellous batsman. Whereas Jimmy, if not quite a rabbit, is no Geoff Boycott. The best nought in the history of cricket came to nothing, whichever way you look at it.
You should have seen the hyenas. Sorry, the Sri Lankans. They went whooping mad all over the hallowed turf. Goodness knows what Trueman would have said but as it was, Dickie Bird fidgeted a bit more than usual. (Impossible, I hear you say.)
Just a few millimetres here and there - a thick edge and a thin edge - and two Tests are decided, the series is won and Sri Lanka create their own history. Fantastic stuff. Sri Lanka have never won a series in England before. All hail Angelo Mathews. Poor Moeen. He deserved better. He really is a find.
Forgetting Moeen for a mo. What a shocker of a week for English sport. The rugby players lost 3-0 in New Zealand. After two thrilling Tests, the third was a terrible thumping. The experts say that the coach, Stuart Lancaster, is doing an excellent job. What a relief. The footballers were knocked out of the World Cup after two games. Only 30% of the players in the Premiership are English. Enough said.
The cricketers fell apart like a cheap suit on the fourth evening at Headingley and this was the root of the penultimate ball drama on the final afternoon. They should have won both Tests against Sri Lanka but contrived to lose the series 1-0. Yikes. The new era must be around the corner somewhere.
What is clear from these three fallouts, is that the young fellas must be the ones to give it a go. Youth knows no past, youth looks forward and sees challenges as opportunities. Experience is all well and good but experience has seen both sides of the fence. Youth does not know about the fence. After the match, the battle-worn Alastair Cook said he will fight on. An excellent sentiment. He must insist that plenty of young fellas are ready to fight with him. There are more Moeen Alis out there.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK