On their first full tour of Sri Lanka, England confirmed their status as the most improved team in Test cricket. While Australia, undisputed masters of the international game, were stumbling to defeat after leading their three-Test series in India, England were striding to success after going behind. It was a clear demonstration of what leadership, conviction and mettle, plus a fair bit of ability, could achieve. By ensuring English heads never bowed, even after their rout at Galle, coach Duncan Fletcher and captain Nasser Hussain could take credit for a fourth consecutive series win. It was almost 22 years since Mike Brearley had led England to a similar run of success. Not that everything went their way after the first Test. At Kandy, dismal umpiring soured the sweet taste of victory, and in the one-day games that ended the trip, Sri Lanka won with embarrassing ease.
Before the tour, observers were unanimous that, on dry, dusty wickets, spin would settle the outcome - and, more specifically, one spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan. The last time these sides had met in a Test, on a dry, dusty wicket at The Oval in 1998, Murali had taken 16 for 220. But now he proved, if not ineffectual, then a shadow of his former destructive self. His strike-rate in home Tests had previously been one victim every 59 balls: in this series it was one every 101. Both Sanath Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas took more wickets at roughly half the cost. Murali did not bowl badly, but after Galle his colleagues did not provide the weight of runs to bowl against, and as importantly, the tourists developed a strategy to negate his wiles.
As Hussain explained, their method was to "pad him or hit him". Wisely, they did more of the former, the right-handers stepping down the wicket and allowing themselves to be struck outside off stump. There were dangers: if the umpires believed the batsman was making no genuine attempt to play the ball, he risked being lbw. So English bats stayed close behind English pads, and some sort of shot was judged to have been played. There was a chance of the ball brushing bat or glove after the pad, but umpires - even television replays - could rarely be sure, and Murali was thwarted time and again. The Sri Lankans never perfected the stratagem: at Colombo, Russel Arnold took a large pace forward, shouldered arms to Giles and, though hit outside the line, was given out leg-before by umpire Orchard. Matters were simpler still for the English left-handers, since Murali's stock ball pitched outside leg. Some of the Sri Lankan media cried foul at this blunting of the home side's most potent weapon, though the ploy elicited more grudging admiration than accusations of cheating.
Such accusations were apparently traded on the field during the second Test, when team relations reached their nadir. Their mutual antipathy - traceable to a foul-tempered one-day match at Adelaide in 1998-99 - had been quick to resurface. In the tour opener at Moratuwa, Darren Gough was reported to the Sri Lankan board for abusive language, and at Matara, Ruchira Perera supposedly directed racist invective at Craig White, though some claimed it was simply a misunderstanding deriving from his surname. In the first Test, Andrew Caddick and Aravinda de Silva were both warned to mind their behaviour, and, at Kurunegala, Gough tangled with an opposing batsman and wagged his finger at an umpire. So it was no surprise when a string of atrocious decisions in the second Test sparked further confrontation. Mike Atherton, Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara were reprimanded by referee Hanumant Singh.
|Running Gough a close second for the series award was Vaas, effectively a one-man Sri Lankan pace attack. In six innings his fellow-seamers - Dilhara Fernando in two games and Nuwan Zoysa in one - bowled a total of 25 overs for one for 104. Vaas, whose career-best six for 73 at Colombo gave him 16 for the series, became the first Sri Lankan to 100 wickets and 1000 runs in Tests|
Before the final Test at Colombo, Jayasuriya and Hussain met in an attempt to improve relations. But more important was the performance of the umpires: Dave Orchard enjoyed a satisfactory match, while Asoka de Silva, a former international legspinner standing in only his second Test, had an exemplary one. The issue of discipline simply did not arise. Even on the phenomenal third day - when 22 wickets fell for 229 and England triumphed - fuses were never blown.
For England, that heady day - Hussain said, "If it was good in Pakistan, it was twice as good here" - proved the high point of a triumphant winter. Though they must have been aching to leave the enervating heat and humidity, most had first to negotiate the one-day series. Graham Thorpe took over as captain when Hussain returned home with an injured thigh, and the one-day specialists flew in. Andrew Flintoff briefly looked as if he might be sent back when he arrived with a suspect ankle, which his county, Lancashire, had chosen not to mention; he stayed, but was a marginal figure. In truth, none of the English one-day players had much influence. Sri Lanka greeted three resounding victories as compensation - if not quite revenge - for the Tests.
Thorpe's appointment as one-day captain was apparently a reward for his outstanding achievement during the Tests. He and Marcus Trescothick, England's two left-handers, totalled 517 runs - 39 more than the next four most successful batsmen combined. Only once in six innings did anyone else make England's top score. Not that they fired together. Trescothick averted English humiliation in the first Test with a hundred and a half-century, but did little thereafter, while Thorpe hit his stride only during the second game, when he was instrumental in seeing England home. At Colombo, the strength of his nerve was crucial: on the third and final day he remained firm as 12 England wickets fell around him for 148.
The left-handers aside, England's batting only fitfully assumed an air of permanence. Ironically, their best opening stands - 83 and 101 - came in the innings defeat at Galle, even if Atherton never properly settled. To the list of his illustrious nemeses, Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath to the fore, was added Vaas. Atherton seemed unable to pick the correct line, and on five occasions out of six Vaas had him leg-before or caught behind. Since his magnificent Pakistan tour, Atherton's footwork had become hesitant, and he ended the series without a fifty. Alec Stewart - rarely at home against spin - did manage one, but his keeping sometimes fell below his usual standards. At Kandy, Hussain finally threw off the shackles of wretched form - his last 12 Tests had brought 244 runs at 13.55 - and to his evident delight, hit a century.
England made just one, reluctant, change in three Tests: Fletcher and Hussain had stuck by Graeme Hick through thick and thin, but after Kandy, where he drowned in a sea of self-doubt, the lean patch had become too thin. In came Michael Vaughan, eight years his junior, for the decider. His inclusion looked to the future of English cricket, and he gave Thorpe valuable support. Craig White, having enjoyed a 2000 as glorious as Hussain's was gruesome, continued to prosper as an allrounder; although he did not shine with quite his earlier brilliance, his cool head saw England home in the second Test.
In Pakistan the unexpected success of slow-left armer Ashley Giles had masked the inadequacy of Ian Salisbury's legspin. In Sri Lanka, however, as Giles lost rhythm and luck - until Colombo - Hussain could confidently turn to his second spinner. The previous summer Robert Croft, whingeing about his omission from the Tests, had been a peripheral figure, but the celebrated inclusivity of Fletcher and Hussain's man-management claimed another success. Restored to the fold, Croft bowled with control and guile, and his resolute batting bolstered the lower order. He collected nine Test wickets to Giles' seven. But star billing went to Gough. Deservedly named Man of the Series, he consistently found enough pace to discomfit batsmen on largely unhelpful pitches, and in the two victories he claimed 13 wickets at 13.76, averaging a breakthrough every 26 balls. Caddick rediscovered his wicket-taking form with nine at 25.
Running Gough a close second for the series award was Vaas, effectively a one-man Sri Lankan pace attack. In six innings his fellow-seamers - Dilhara Fernando in two games and Nuwan Zoysa in one - bowled a total of 25 overs for one for 104. Vaas, whose career-best six for 73 at Colombo gave him 16 for the series, became the first Sri Lankan to 100 wickets and 1000 runs in Tests. Jayasuriya also managed 16 wickets, benefiting from batsmen dropping their guard against a spinner they considered less dangerous than Muralitharan, but he undeniably performed well. As did Murali himself, working tirelessly and without complaint, even when Cooray denied him a clutch of dismissals. But 14 wickets at 30.07 was a disappointing yield for a bowler of his class.
Just as the wickets came from three players, so the runs came from four. Marvan Atapattu began with a majestic undefeated double-hundred, but could barely strike the ball thereafter. It was a cruel turn of the wheel of fortune, though his lot was on the up by the end of the one-day series, when he captained Sri Lanka to their first ten-wicket victory in such games. De Silva also kicked off with a century before hitting more indifferent form. Two of the younger stars in the Sri Lankan firmament proved more consistent. Mahela Jayawardene played beautiful innings in all three Tests, while Sangakkara's 95 at Kandy was all the better for coming in adversity.
Throughout the tour England spectators matched home supporters in numbers and in volume - and far exceeded them in spending power. There had been significant refurbishment of hotels beforehand, and newspapers frequently mentioned the boost to the Sri Lankan economy from the visitors - estimated at 10,000. Given England's past churlishness in granting Sri Lanka only occasional one-off Tests, it was fitting that the hosts should also benefit from the long-overdue tour.
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Colts XI v England XI at Moratuwa, Feb 5-6, 2001
Sri Lanka Board President's XI v England XI at Colombo (PSS), Feb 8-11, 2001
Tour Match: Sri Lanka Board President's XI v England XI at Matara, Feb 15-18, 2001
Sri Lanka Colts XI v England XI at Kurunegala, Mar 3, 2001
Sri Lanka Board President's XI v England XI at Colombo (CCC), Mar 21, 2001