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December 1, 2007
Until today, Matthew Hoggard had little reason to recall Kandy with any fondness. It was on this ground, on England's corresponding tour back in December 2003, that he was last dropped from the Test side, having toiled with little impact in the suffocating heat of Galle.
Back then he was, by his own admission, a very different cricketer to the man he is today - a player torn between the need for speed and the reliance on his natural attributes of swing and stamina - and it showed in the muddled nature of his performances.
There has been no such uncertainty clouding Hoggard's thoughts this time around. He's been the most relaxed player in a noticeably laidback squad - whether he's been tackling snakes in the undergrowth, larking in the water with orphaned elephants or, as he himself likes to put it, "closing his eyes and whanging it down" to carry England into the ascendancy. As he bundled in to bowl, shaping the ball away from the right-handers and angling across the left, it was hard to believe it's been five months to the day since he was last involved in a Test for England.
"Missing most of last summer was a bit of a bugger," said Hoggard with customary frankness. "I piled a few pounds on, so it's been nice to get back in the gym and work hard before coming out here." He lost a few more still in a rollicking new-ball spell of 10-3-21-4, ripping the heart out of a Sri Lankan top-order that - with the honourable exception of Kumar Sangakkara - played with the tentativeness one associates with a side that's just been routed by the Australians.
Sri Lanka's Aussie excursion cannot have been the ideal preparation for such a high-profile home series, and in the build-up to the match Sangakkara spent several intense net sessions reacquainting himself with his hometown conditions. But he refused to use the rapid change of scenery as an excuse, understandably enough, seeing as he followed up a wondrous 192 at Hobart with another remarkably singleminded performance here. "Test cricket is always going to be the same around the world," he said. "We knew we were playing at home so there's everything to play for, but the attitude of the guys going into a Test match is always of the highest intensity."
Even so, Sri Lanka expected more when this match got underway. The banners and flags along the roads outside the stadium were all willing their side to victory, while a large portrait of Muttiah Muralitharan stood outside the Old Trinitians' clubhouse, prematurely congratulating him on reclaiming his world Test bowling record. At the close of play, there was an almighty din as a fusillade of firecrackers - 709 of them, at a guess - were set off around its base. The implication was clear. The locals had turned up for a coronation, but their party had been spectacularly pooped.
"We like doing things the hard way," said Hoggard, after England had been asked to bowl first on what looked like a belter of a track. "The ball moved about and nibbled a little bit, and as everyone knows, any lateral movement is good for bowlers and bad for batsmen. We knew it was going to swing early doors, and thankfully we got the balls in the right areas, and they managed to nick it rather than miss it."
Everything that could go right for England did go right. Kevin Pietersen set the tone of the day with a spectacular pluck at cover to hasten Sanath Jayasuriya's impending retirement, and thereafter Hoggard clicked into his subcontinental autopilot. Asia is traditionally a graveyard for fast bowlers - just ask Dennis Lillee - and yet every winter Hoggard seems determined to buck the trend - from Dhaka to Nagpur to Kandy, even via an unusually oriental Adelaide pitch in the Ashes last winter.
Hoggard's 47 wickets in Asia have come at a shade over 26, a remarkable record for which he has no explanation other than accuracy and hard work. His indomitable efforts have given England the sort of ascendancy they could only have dreamed of when, back in the planning stages of this tour, they earmarked Kandy as their venue of opportunity. "We've been accused in the past of not hitting the ground running, and having to play catch-up cricket," said Hoggard. "Often we've managed to do that and the bouncebackability word has been bandied about. But if we can take that away and hit them hard and be right on the button right from ball one, which we showed today, it's a lot easier for us."
It wasn't all Hoggard's doing today, however. His wickets dried up as the new ball lost its shine - "I'm not allowed to bowl reverse swing because I'm not fast enough," he mock-grumbled - and thereafter Monty Panesar came into his own, filleting Sri Lanka's flimsy tail with an eyebrow-raising spell of accurate and sharp spin. "There's been quite an emphasis on Monty out here and he's under a lot of pressure as the only spinner," said Hoggard. "When you're bowling seam with your mates you've got another two chances, but his spell today was fantastic."
Whatever Monty can do, Murali can undoubtedly better, and his brief foray in the fading light was gripping in every sense of the word. But before he can get his teeth into England's batsmen and tick off the wickets until his world record, the stadium organisers are going to have to replace those spent fireworks. England have stolen the thunderflashes in the opening exchanges of this series.
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