Sri Lanka won the first game of a three-match One-Day International series by five wickets at the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium today. It was an extraordinary day in Dambulla's rich history, as the town, famed for its Buddhist cave temples and previously dependent upon the vegetable trade, staged its inaugural international cricket match after six months of hectic construction work.
The working lives of thousands of local residents of this normally sleepy town were transformed last September when the ambitious, some say foolhardy, Sri Lankan cricket board decided to build the country's eighth international venue on 65 acres of dry land jungle. Local farmers threw down their hoes to become groundsmen and builders laboured for 155 mad, long days.
Thus, when the inaugural international match was played today, crowds flocked to the stadium, most through the ticket gates, but many also poured through a hole in the fence after the start of play. The stands, literally bursting at the seams in a state of half completion, vibrated with excitement, and the band, precariously perched on the top of the hastily finished Grand Stand, hardly took a breath all day.
Unfortunately the cricket, despite the best efforts of Sanath Jaysuriya, who blasted 39 from 35 balls, failed to match the atmosphere of the occasion, as the ball dominated the bat and England were bundled out for just 143 in 48.5 overs. Sri Lanka then threatened to recreate the tension of the Test series, as they lost three wickets for eight runs in the middle order, before Russel Arnold (39*) and Marvan Atapattu (40), both of whom registered a pair in the Third Test, guided Sri Lanka home.
Indeed a low-scoring affair had been predicted. Andy Akinson, a renowned groundsman-cum-international pitch consultant, was given just eight weeks to prepare the playing surface and, although he completed his task - thanks in part to 500 local women, who painstakingly transplanted individual blades of grass into the square - even he had no idea how the dry brown would behave on the eve on the match.
In the event it surpassed expectations and though slow in pace and slightly variable in bounce, England should have scored more runs having won the toss and batted first when the pitch was at its best. They, however, struggled against Sri Lanka's spinners after Nuwan Zoysa had nipped out both Alec Stewart and Graeme Hick in the early overs.
Kumar Dharmasena and Russel Arnold both bowled tightly after the successful burst from the new ball pair and Arnold also picked up the wicket of Marcus Trescothick for 21, as the broad-shouldered left-hander tried to manoeuvre a straight ball into the leg side and was bowled. It was Muttiah Muralitharan though that condemned England to their poor total.
Sri Lanka's magical spinner, spurred on by game taunts from teammates that Harbhajan Singh had now displaced him as the premier spinner in the world and still fuming at perceived umpiring injustice during the England Test series, returned to his normal match-winning mould, as he took four wickets in the innings and three in a crucial first spell.
England, having slipped to 75 for three midway through their innings, were trying to rebuild when Michael Vaughan, who made his ODI debut when he replaced Nick Knight this morning, dragged his foot while sweeping and was stumped for nine. Andrew Flintoff was also stumped in Muralitharan's next over and Craig White was deceived by the "other one" to be caught at slip for a first ball duck. England had slumped to 97 for six.
Graham Thorpe, acting England captain in the absence of the injured Nasser Hussain, carried on where he left off in the Test series and once again the Sri Lankans were unable to dismiss him, as he scored an unbeaten 62 off 107 balls.
Sanath Jayasuriya, who chastised his players this week for their irresponsibility in the Test series, started the Sri Lanka innings with a bang. He hit ten runs off Andrew Caddick's first over and raced to 39 off 35 balls. The innings, however, then started to falter as England's fast bowlers - four of whom played in the game in case the pitch played as badly as it could - probed away.
Romesh Kaluwitharana had already been dismissed, caught behind as he tried to drive an Andrew Caddick away swinger, when Jayasuriya was unlucky to be adjudged leg before wicket to a delivery from Alan Mullally that was sliding down the leg side. Mahela Jayawardene was an unlucky recipient of a delivery of unusual bounce from Darren Gough and Kumar Sangakkara hung his bat out to dry to become the third Sri Lankan batsman caught behind.
Sri Lanka were 58 for four and after their woeful second innings performance at the Sinhalese Sports Club, the game looked to be back on an even keel. With the pitch now getting lower and lower, Arnold and Atapattu applied themselves well, however, as they added 70 runs in 132 balls. By the time Atapattu was trapped lbw for 40 by a short delivery that crept along the ground, Sri Lanka were home and dry.