England were out-thought and outclassed
And so England's series ended as it had begun, with the tail clinging on amid the lengthening shadows, waiting for the elements to give them a reprieve. At Kandy they deserved a break and were given none; at Galle they deserved nothing of the sort and got one. Such is the way of Test cricket. It often rewards the tenacious, but it's rare that justice isn't done in the final analysis.
That has certainly been the case with England's outclassed cricketers. Hanging on at all costs has been the English way in Sri Lanka ever since Nasser Hussain won a street-fight of a series in 2000-01, but in consecutive tours under Michael Vaughan that approach has been shown to be flawed. Vaughan's teams have got stuck in a rut, refused to adapt their ambitions, and recast Hussain's brand of tenacity as negativity. For the Sri Lankans, five of whom have played in all three contests, the difference has been all too discernible.
"If you want to compete, especially away from home, you have to be more positive," Mahela Jayawardene said after the match. "You can't go with a negative frame of mind, thinking these are not our conditions and we cannot survive." Jayawardene credited their former coach, Tom Moody, with the change in Sri Lanka's mindset, and pointed to two recent drawn series, in England in 2006 and New Zealand six months later, as evidence of their aggression in all conditions. England, on the other hand, have mustered a solitary win in their last 14 overseas Tests. There's simply no comparison between the two at present.
After a competitive first Test, the turning point of the series in Jayawardene's opinion, was the opening day in Colombo. England won a good toss but ground their way to a nothing score of 258 for 5 in 87 overs, and from that moment on, the destiny of the series was confirmed. "They batted too slowly and we realised they were not actually pushing for a win, they were just trying to survive," Jayawardene said. "We saw a lot of negativity in their game, and we thought if we could keep competing we would create more opportunities, and they would not come close to us."
|England's final day of the tour was coloured by yet another moment of madness. Three wickets tumbled in the space of four deliveries from Muralitharan, in an over that Vaughan said summed up his team's experience in Sri Lanka|
Aside from a rusty first morning in Kandy, when they were still readjusting from their roughing-up at the hands of the top dogs, Australia, Sri Lanka were magnificent. Even so, Jayawardene claimed he was surprised at the ease of their dominance. "I expected England to be more competitive," he said. "They were, in the first game, but after that they were competitive on certain days or sessions, but not all five days. We wanted to win this series more than they did. We batted much better in tough situations, and that was the difference between the two sides. You have to believe you have the talent to compete."
For Vaughan it has been a chastising tour. "Michael Vaughan, our most successful captain, we support you," declared the Barmy Army in banner form, which rather underlines how far things have slipped since his first stint at the helm. He just has to hope his next vote of confidence doesn't come from the England selectors. The Test side hasn't been beaten in consecutive Test series since Hussain's men lost at home to Australia and away to India in 2001-02, and with a tricky away tour to New Zealand next, there's no guarantee that the upturn is in sight.
"We're trying to develop a winning culture," Vaughan said, as he inadvertently proved Jayawardene's point. "We've fought very very hard to get draws, which is one of the things you require first and foremost, to make yourself difficult to beat, but now we've got to start winning. But we didn't bowl as well as we could, we didn't bat as well as we could, and we didn't field as well as we could, and when you throw all those into a pot, they are not great ingredients for success."
England's cricket was summed up as naïve at the very start of the series, and unfortunately for them, the experiences in Kandy and Colombo couldn't be computed in time for success in Galle. Instead they were left to watch with wonder as Sri Lanka streaked ahead of them in all departments. "They've got batters who can bat time and occupy the crease for a day-and-a-half and get big totals on the board," Vaughan said. "They have an attack that is varied, with left-armers and a guy bowling at 140kph, and they've got the greatest spin bowler to play the game. In these conditions, they are a real handful."
At least England spared themselves the indignity of going home without a single century or five-wicket haul for their efforts. Alastair Cook fronted up on the final day with England's only landmark performance of the tour. He turns 23 on Christmas Day, and Vaughan was lavish in his praise for the efforts of a man who has now made seven Test centuries in a little over 18 months of international cricket.
"I was never in any doubt; he's going to be a great player for England for many years," Vaughan said. "This hundred in Galle will probably give his confidence the biggest boost of any hundred he's ever got, because of the conditions, and because we were bowled out for 81. Going back in there showed a hell of a lot of character and skill."
And yet, for all of England's improved effort with the bat, their final day of the tour was coloured by yet another moment of madness. Three wickets tumbled in the space of four deliveries from Muralitharan, in an over that Vaughan said summed up his team's experience in Sri Lanka. As souvenirs of the trip go, they'd probably prefer to pick up a nice carved wooden elephant from the boutiques in the fort.
"If you switch off for any given moment, this kind of team can jump all over you," Vaughan said. "When you're facing the likes of Murali, if you relax for any ball, or any given period, he'll take the opportunity." The statement begged the question, why on earth were England even allowing relaxation to enter their minds? "People have been doing things well in little instances, but we just couldn't do it well enough or long enough to put Sri Lanka under pressure." It's been England's story on a supremely disappointing tour.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo