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December 5, 2007
As the final session of a gripping Test match unfolded, Michael Vaughan allowed his thoughts to drift back to the last time England were in Kandy. Then, as now, a great escape had been in the offing, as England ground agonisingly towards sunset, the only thing that could spare them from their Muralitharan-induced fate. They managed it on that occasion, inching across the line with three wickets still in hand. This time they were not so fortunate, slumping to defeat with approximately 20 minutes of serviceable daylight still remaining.
It was a gut-wrenching result for a side that had grabbed the ascendancy with five cheap wickets on the first morning of the match. But by the time an immobile Matthew Hoggard had his stumps detonated by a Lasith Malinga yorker, England had long since relinquished their superiority. "Gameplans, gameplans," had been the mantra in the build-up to this Test, but regardless of the guts displayed by Ian Bell and Matt Prior in an uplifting 109-run stand for the seventh wicket, England's naivety was their defining characteristic.
Even Vaughan accepted that to be the case. "I can't ask any more in terms of character and fight, just a little bit more expertise I guess," he admitted after the match. This is Vaughan's third visit to Sri Lanka, but never has he come here as part of such an inexperienced squad. In 2000-01, he was the rookie as Nasser Hussain's generation achieved their defining result, and three years later, many of the same characters were still on show, particularly among the batsmen.
This time, there are just three veterans in a squad of 16, which has meant a lot of learning-on-the-hoof out in the middle - particularly, and predictably, against Muralitharan. On England's last visit, it was his newly acquired doosra that ultimately did for the visitors, but now - having reclaimed his world record from Shane Warne - he seems to have adopted some of Warne's kidology as well. Like Warne and his mythical zooter, Murali's deadliest weapon in this match turned out to be the offspinner that didn't actually spin.
England did astonishingly well to repel Murali for as long as they did. For 32 overs he toiled without reward, on a track that he had predicted - through decades of cricket on his home ground - would get slower and lower as the match progressed. England's batsmen did as they had done four years earlier, and rocked onto the back foot to watch the slow snaking of the old ball right onto the middle of their bats.
But the defining moment of the day came when Jayawardene called for the new ball. At a subconscious level, England's incumbents, Bell and Prior, possibly believed they had done what Collingwood and Sidebottom managed in the first innings, and repelled the threat at least temporarily. Not a bit of it. Murali continued unchanged with a shiny, hard ball in his fingers, and within 14 deliveries he'd wrecked England's hopes with both the big wickets. The doosra did for Prior and the offbreak for Bell, but neither ripped as they had been doing all day long. Instead they bounced and almost seamed, much in the manner that Anil Kumble has collected his tally of 578 wickets.
"That's why he's a world-champion performer," said Vaughan. "At six-down after lunch, we were realistically looking at losing mid-afternoon. But the way those guys played Murali, and the way they played the reversing ball, they showed a hell of a lot of character. We played him well for most of the day, but when you've got bowlers like him in your armoury it only takes a split second to change the game. That's the mystery of the guy and it makes him so difficult to face."
For Bell, the failure to close out the game will have been particularly galling. The extent of his talent as a batsman is no longer in question. He is beginning to rack up runs against all opponents and in all conditions. But it is as if he has yet to receive the advice that Kumar Sangakkara spoke of after his massive performance in Sri Lanka's second innings - the obligation to see your innings right through to the end. When Vaughan suggested that the turning point of the match had come with England's failure to build on their start in the first innings, he might have had Bell's dismissal for 83 at the forefront of his mind. He had played the seamers with such assurance that to hole out off Murali's bowling seemed a dereliction of duty.
Vaughan vowed that England would take this defeat on the chin and move on to Colombo with a positive intent. But the three-day turnaround is going to be an tough one. They are already facing up to the fact that Hoggard is a non-starter because of his back problems, and other problems exist in all facets of their game. Alastair Cook looks horribly out of sorts against the swinging left-arm delivery - a legacy of the working-over he received from Zaheer Khan in the summer - while Monty Panesar seemed palpably unsuited to the pace of this Kandy track. If Murali had to struggle so hard for his breakthroughs, it's not exactly surprising.
As the team boards their bus for Colombo, there's more to ponder that just a spirit-sapping defeat.
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