Bell shines amid the gloom
In the 2005 Ashes, word slipped out that England's organisers had booked their open-top bus parade a full week in advance, and the ECB were rightly accused of hubris. Nobody, however, has bothered to level the same charges at the committeemen at the Asgiriya in Kandy. Muttiah Muralitharan's face is everywhere at the moment - on one billboard he's posing with the number 709, on another he's already being congratulated for reclaiming his crown. No-one has doubted his destiny in this match - least of all, it seems, England's batsmen.
England's cricket on the second day was naïve but not unexpected. They squandered a position of undoubted strength, and yet, such was the bug-eyed fervour with which Muralitharan hounded them back to the pavilion, it would be harsh to chastise them too severely for their failings. They tried their best, but their best was found wanting, as it surely will be tomorrow as well. England's tail is as long and brittle as a deep-frozen anaconda, and Murali must be odds on to complete not only his bid for the world record, but his second eight-wicket haul in consecutive Tests against England.
"It's disappointing because we were in a very good position, but that's why Murali is the best in the world," said Ian Bell. He was England's most fluent batsman against the seamers, but unsurprisingly found Murali a completely different proposition. "It's important we go out tomorrow and build some partnerships around Colly [Paul Collingwood]. We've got a chance to get a decent lead and the guys can come out and bowl like they did in the first innings."
It all looked so promising after the first hour's play. Michael Vaughan was entrenched but enduring, absorbing Murali's wiles while Bell watched and learned from the non-striker's end. This was the first time Bell had faced him in the longest form of the game, and it wasn't until he had made 56 from 72 balls that he finally crossed with his captain and went to take guard.
"I was pretty happy to be honest for the skipper to see him off," said Bell. "I was trying to watch from the non-striker's end, trying to pick in my own mind what it was he was bowling before I got down there. It gave me a bit more opportunity to give myself the best chance." Several hours in the nets with Merlin, the ECB's spin-replicating machine, had helped Bell to visualise the moment, but nothing could adequately prepare any of the England players for the trials they were about to face.
Bell's own innings included moments of aggression against Murali - a two-step down the pitch resulted in a chancy swipe over mid-on for four, and his eventual dismissal was a shot of similar intent. But as England had preached beforehand, gameplans are everything when it comes to negotiating his menace.
"I just wanted to be positive," said Bell. "I've learnt so far in my short career that I want to play my game and use my feet, and be as positive as possible against the spinners. From what I've learnt from playing Warne and those guys, if you just try to survive they are going to get you out anyway. I wanted to be positive in defence as well as attack, watch the ball and trust myself."
Bell and England's gameplan also included lots of quick singles, but that was one aspect of their play that simply didn't materialise. Murali's 30 overs included just 19 scoring shots, a tribute to his masterful accuracy but also indicative of a side that seemed trapped in his headlights. "It's disappointing but that's why he's the best bowler in the world," said Bell. "His record in Sri Lanka speaks for itself."
England's prospects for the rest of the match now look as bleak as the weather, which might in fact be their best hope of salvation. "The pitch has been low from day one, and that's what it'll be like for the rest of the game," said Bell, as the prospect loomed of another agonising masterclass in the fourth innings. "I think that it's important for the bowlers to hit a line and length and be patient, because it's going to be harder to score as the game goes on."
England's bowlers answered that brief magnificently in the first innings, but Murali doesn't even need to be posed the question. He knows what he'll be producing for the rest of the match. England know it too, as of course do his expectant hometown fans. Their ardour has been dampened by consecutive days of anticlimax, but Murali and his celebrations will not be delayed for much longer in this game.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo