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Toss: Sri Lanka. Test debut: A. S. A. Perera.
Only three weeks after a Test series victory against South Africa had encouraged talk that English cricket was embarking upon a more successful era, the unique bowling talents of the Sri Lankan off-spinner, Muralitharan, brought England back down to earth in the final Test of the summer. Muralitharan, the hill-country Tamil and son of a biscuit manufacturer, born with a deformity of the elbow joint and a highly manoeuvrable wrist, produced one of the most phenomenal bowling displays in Test history as Sri Lanka won by ten wickets inside the final hour. Muralitharan's 16 for 220 was the fifth-best match analysis in Test history; his nine for 65 in England's second innings was seventh on the all-time list. On the way, he passed 200 Test wickets in his 42nd Test. Among spinners, only Clarrie Grimmett had reached 200 in fewer Tests; another Australian, Shane Warne, also took 42. Many who observed Muralitharan's prodigious performance wondered whether, given continued fitness, he could become the greatest Test wicket-taker in history.
England had long identified Muralitharan as Sri Lanka's prime bowling threat (indeed, Sri Lanka's captain, Ranatunga, had no compunction in referring to him as his only real asset), and the nature of the Oval surface strengthened that conviction. Slow and largely unresponsive to the seamers, the pitch negated the England trio of Gough, Fraser and Cork that had been central to the defeat of South Africa. Salisbury's leg-spin, seemingly fraught with anxiety, also failed to impress. That left the only battle between Muralitharan, his own exhaustion and the tortuous resistance of the England batsmen. Muralitharan's unorthodox action, angled in from wide of the crease, achieved turn and dip from the outset, and provided an engrossing spectacle, even against batsmen largely committed to survival. As long as ICC remains satisfied by its legitimacy, it is an unorthodox action that we are privileged to witness. Evidence suggested that only a small minority of spectators at The Oval had much sympathy with England's coach, David Lloyd, when he hinted at his unhappiness with Muralitharan's methods on the fourth evening. Lloyd's remark that "I have my opinions that I have made known to the authorities" brought an official protest to the ECB from the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka, and led to Lloyd receiving a severe reprimand.
Rarely has a Test innings encouraged more misleading conclusions than England's first. England took not far short of two days to make 445 and were assumed, at the very least, to be safe from defeat: they weren't. Hick's computerised, indeed colourless, century on the first day had been greeted as making his selection for the winter's Ashes series inevitable; thanks to Crawley's subsequent 156, a crisper, more appealing affair, it didn't. And, thirdly, the widespread condemnation of Ranatunga, for putting England in to bat, had to be gradually re-addressed. Ranatunga later crowed that he had wanted Muralitharan to have a rest in between innings, a points-scoring explanation which required us to believe that, had Sri Lanka batted first, they would have automatically made England follow on.
Atherton withdrew late on Wednesday, because of back trouble, and England awarded a second cap to James - who was allowed to rush home to Cardiff between the first and second days to attend the birth of his daughter. With Hussain also out with a groin injury, Crawley was recalled, and Ben Hollioake replaced Flintoff. Hick's fifth Test hundred therefore came in the rarified atmosphere of No. 3. A sound innings against a limited attack proved little as to how he might fare in more pressurised circumstances. By tea on the second day, Hick had been overshadowed: Crawley, on his return, drove expansively, played purposefully off his legs and curbed Muralitharan's growing threat. Both batted for around five and a half hours; Crawley (who might have gone to a return catch by Muralitharan before scoring - it was called a no-ball) allowed himself the liberty of a relaxed last-wicket frolic with Fraser. But there was an unavoidable sense of tour applications being penned at the crease.
None of this could match the entertainment in store on the third day. Sri Lanka, 79 for one overnight, danced to 446 for three. Jayasuriya, who had suffered a lean Test year since taking 340 off India in Colombo, stroked 213 in 346 minutes from 278 balls, with 33 fours and a six. De Silva, habitually pulling good-length balls, collected a hundred, which made him the first Sri Lankan to pass 5,000 Test runs. Together, they added 243, breaking their own record for Sri Lanka's third wicket. Even though England fought back staunchly on Sunday, when six wickets fell for 86, debutant Suresh Perera and Muralitharan put on 59 to extend Sri Lanka's lead to 146.
Muralitharan had two wickets by the close, including Hick for a duck. Next day, Ramprakash's run-out of his captain, Stewart, proved significant. Perhaps it cost England the game; just as possibly, it robbed Muralitharan of the opportunity of joining Jim Laker as only the second bowler to take all ten wickets in a Test innings. Crawley was bowled on the stroke of lunch, attempting an extravagant drive; Hollioake fell first ball immediately afterwards. Only when Gough, who reined himself in for almost two and a half hours, joined Ramprakash did England suggest they might achieve a draw, to match that at Old Trafford earlier in the summer. It was marvellous cat-and-mouse - Ramprakash cleverly protecting Gough from Muralitharan, the bowler regularly switching ends to try to get at him. Finally, Ramprakash's hair-shirt defiance, more than four hours for 42, ended when he pushed to short leg. Gough was bowled behind his legs, sweeping. All that remained was for Sri Lanka to score 36 to win, and for Muralitharan to retrieve the match ball and assert once again that he was doing no wrong.
Man of the Match: M. Muralitharan. Attendance: 70,688; receipts £1,404,250.
Close of play: First day, England 228-4 (G. A. Hick 107*, J. P. Crawley 10*); Second day, Sri Lanka 79-1 (S. T. Jayasuriya 59*, D. P. M. D. Jayawardene 4*); Third day, Sri Lanka 446-3 (P. A. De Silva 125*, A. Ranatunga 50*); Fourth day, England 54-2 (S. P. James 20*, A. J. Stewart 15*).