The Sri Lankans in England

Rob Smyth

In their 21st year as a Test-playing nation, Sri Lanka's adulthood was finally recognised with the present they most wanted: a first full tour of England. But the party hardly got going at all. They were without Muttiah Muralitharan for the first part of the tour; when he did arrive, they lost the last two Tests com-prehensively. England played so well that a 2-0 victory did not flatter them, but Sri Lanka certainly helped gift-wrap it. And the whole thing was con-ducted in the shadow of a bigger, better jamboree - the football World Cup.

Failure to reach the final of the triangular one-day series compounded an unhappy tour, which was in total contrast to the giddy, all-conquering stopover in 1998. When Sri Lanka's coach, Dav Whatmore, said at the end, "I've seen some positives but we haven't got what it takes to win abroad," only the first bit was debatable.

Sanath Jayasuriya, a lugubrious figure throughout, set the tone, though he wasn't the only one sporting a furrowed brow. Sri Lanka's Australian bowling coach, Daryl Foster, resigned in an argument over travel expenses, Aravinda de Silva was robbed of £3,000 at a Chesterfield hotel, and the tour manager, Chandra Schaffter, found out during the Third Test that his contract would not be renewed.

It was a tour of three distinct parts. Sri Lanka started like a side counting the days until Murali recovered from a dislocated shoulder, rallied briefly to dominate the drawn First Test without him, and then, when he was back in the side, played just as the book says subcontinental sides should in an English May and June. They didn't win a single first-class match, not even against British Universities.

England won their first Test series since going to Sri Lanka 15 months earlier and completed their first double on the ICC Test Championship table. Never had the present generation of England players dominated a rubber quite so extensively: this was England's first 2-0 win in a home series since 1978. From the start of the second innings at Lord's, England averaged 65 per wicket, Sri Lanka just 27.

If England had gone "round the brick wall" in that series in Sri Lanka, as Scyld Berry put it, this time they huffed and puffed until the house fell down. While Ashley Giles, left out at Lord's on the basis of precedent rather than pitch, kept a rein on things, the seamers pounded Sri Lanka's strokemakers into submission with relentless discipline, especially on an Australian-style pitch at Old Trafford.

Enjoying the luxury of not having to penny-pinch to make the best of modest scores, Nasser Hussain's captaincy was at its most sparkling. Not once in the field did he have to defend a total of less than 500, and he allowed himself treats he couldn't usually afford. His declaration gave the First Test a kick when most captains would have happily kept their feet up, and most of his field placings came off too: when Hussain put himself at leg gully for de Silva at Old Trafford, the ball followed him within an over. He even started winning the toss.

Sri Lanka arrived in April on the back of nine consecutive Test wins - a record surpassed only by the two great sides of modern cricket history, the 1980s West Indies and the present-day Australians - yet few people took that statistic seriously. Eight of the wins had been at home, the other in Lahore. It was widely believed that outside the subcontinent, and especially in a dank English spring, the limitations of their angled bats and flashy strokes would be exposed.

Their early form did nothing to confound that opinion. Most of the batsmen could hardly buy a run, and when Kent hammered 419 in only 63.3 overs, the bowlers needed Murali like never before. Sri Lanka were ripe for a hammering, but someone forgot to tell the MCC groundsman - or the elements. The first two days of the series were Lord's in May by name, Colombo in February by nature. A featherbed pitch and sultry heat provided the fuel for Sri Lanka to pass 500 in the first innings for the eighth time in ten Tests. England, by contrast, hadn't managed it even once in five years and 60 Tests - although that wrong would soon be righted.

England responded to the unique challenge of facing three left-arm seamers with some cack-handed batting. Despite having a long, strong line-up with Andrew Flintoff at No. 8, they collapsed and followed on as nature took the course it so often does when a big total is on the board. The man who started the rot, Ruchira Perera, was all over the papers the next morning - but it had nothing to do with the fact that he dismissed Michael Vaughan and Graham Thorpe with successive deliveries. Channel 4 footage cast doubts on his energetic, slingy action, and many viewers agreed that it looked dodgy. Perera was ultimately reported by the umpires after the match for a suspect action and played little further part in the tour, though he did leave Mark Butcher £1,500 out of pocket, after Butcher told his ghost-writer at the Croydon Advertiser, "when [Perera] bowls short he just runs up and throws it at you. I can't believe someone gets away with it."

If Butcher was loose with tongue and wealth, he was frugality personified with the bat. His 291-ball century in the second innings at Lord's was the soothing rhetoric that persuaded England that the only demons were in their mind, not the pitch. With the first of five 500-plus totals in the season, England exposed as fanciful the notion of Sri Lanka winning a Test without Murali.

From there the series followed its preordained script. Sri Lanka batted first again at Edgbaston, but this time there were two key differences: Hussain put them in, and Andy Caddick, lethargy incarnate at Lord's, got out of the right side of the bed. Bowled out inside 53 overs, Sri Lanka were never in the game as England built up their biggest first-innings lead since 1967. It was Marcus Trescothick's turn to help himself this time, with a career-best 161. Even the return of Murali, who toiled through 64 overs for his regulation five-for and denied Butcher a second (and ultimately third) consecutive hundred with a mirror image of Shane Warne's Ball of the Century, couldn't stem the tide. A serene last-wicket partnership of 91 between Graham Thorpe and Matthew Hoggard, in which Hoggard actually took more of the strike, was a microcosm of the morale of both sides throughout the series.

The Third Test wasn't far off a carbon-copy. With James Foster ready to return following a broken arm, there were suggestions that Alec Stewart's 118th Test would be his last. Not a bit of it. Sometimes with Stewart you just know a century is in the post: here he was equalling Graham Gooch as England's most-capped player, and England were playing Denmark in the second round of the World Cup when he resumed on 57 on the third day. A patriot and football fan, Stewart waited while most of the crowd watched the Denmark game on the £10,000 big screen that the ECB erected behind the Stretford End - even sneaking the odd glance himself - then, as they funnelled back in, belted four consecutive fours to move from 86 to 102. For a man whose public face can be wooden, Stewart has an acute sense of theatre.

After Giles took the final two wickets at almost the last possible moment that could keep a result alive, England were left chasing 50 off six overs. Yet, for them, this was a penalty shoot-out without the suffocating pressure: the series was already won. Vaughan and Trescothick found top gear straight away and romped to a thrilling victory with an over to spare as Jayasuriya failed to work out that if he spread the field, they could get them in singles. At 7.35, it was one of the latest finishes to a Test in England.

This was a very bad tour for Jayasuriya, whose one-dimensional strategy - bat first, score 500, bowl Murali after about ten overs - suffered in comparison with the invention of Hussain. His batting, lacking any of its usual joie de vivre, fell apart to the extent that he dropped down the order for the last Test, and after mopping up 16 English wickets a year earlier, he took none now. His body language was never the same once he dropped Vaughan twice in four overs on the fourth morning at Lord's, and one of the most infectious smiles in world cricket had disappeared long before the end.

Kumar Sangakkara, who arrived with a Test average of 53 and a big reputation as the face of the new, hard-nosed Sri Lanka, wasn't much better. Like Jayasuriya, he failed to make a half-century in the Tests, and with the runs went his angry-young-man routine. Mahela Jayawardene got to grips with the conditions better than anyone, making three first-class centuries including - finally - his first in an overseas Test, while Marvan Atapattu, as in the series between the sides 15 months earlier, put all his eggs in one big, First Test hundred.

If anything, the bowlers were even more disappointing. A lot was expected of Chaminda Vaas, but he struggled to get any reverse swing and the final step from 196 Test wickets to 200 took him a whopping 137 overs. In all, he bowled 35 more overs than he had against England in 2000-01 for a quarter of the wickets: he seemed to miss Mike Atherton. And while England never truly mastered Murali, they certainly muzzled him. Against the left-handers, Trescothick, Butcher and Thorpe, his wickets cost 93 runs and came every 35 overs. Murali's overall strike-rate was a wicket every 95 balls - only the second time in ten series that it had been over 60. The other time had also been against England, testimony to the effectiveness of the forward press that Duncan Fletcher had taught the batsmen to use against spin.

Dilhara Fernando, sidelined until the last Test with a stress fracture, did show raw pace and a confidence trickster of a slower ball that sucked in Vaughan and Hussain, but that was as good as it got. As a consequence, it was a series of plenty for England's batsmen. Vaughan, after a feverish performance in New Zealand, added a drop of discretion to his game and arrived as a Test opener, while Trescothick and Butcher, like left-handed incarnations of Graham Gooch and David Boon minus the bristle, gathered run after run after run in their contrasting ways.

Only in their selection for Lord's did England take a backward step. The public expected Alex Tudor and Ian Bell... and got Dominic Cork and John Crawley. Both lasted one Test, though they would return later in the summer. England started the series with Dad's Army and ended it with The Young Ones. When Tudor, Hoggard - who came back well from a butterfly-stomach display at Lord's - and Flintoff won the final Test with an almost Australian relentlessness on a rock-hard Old Trafford pitch, the future looked bright indeed. It was the first time since 1996 that England had won a Test without Caddick, who broke down in his sixth over, or Darren Gough.

Hoggard, Tudor and Flintoff appeared on the cover of Wisden Cricket Monthly in August, and a nation dreamed of them sharing the wickets in Australia and bringing home the Ashes. It didn't quite work out like that - they shared nothing more than eight wickets, six stitches and a dodgy hernia. The Sri Lankans weren't alone in realising that the script is one thing, fantasy entirely another.

Match reports for

Kent v Sri Lankans at Canterbury, Apr 26-28, 2002
Scorecard

Sir Paul Getty's XI v Sri Lankans at Wormsley, Apr 30, 2002
Scorecard

British Universities v Sri Lankans at Northampton, May 2-4, 2002
Scorecard

Durham v Sri Lankans at Chester-le-Street, May 7-9, 2002
Scorecard

Middlesex v Sri Lankans at Shenley, May 11-13, 2002
Scorecard

1st Test: England v Sri Lanka at Lord's, May 16-20, 2002
Report | Scorecard

Glamorgan v Sri Lankans at Cardiff, May 23-26, 2002
Scorecard

2nd Test: England v Sri Lanka at Birmingham, May 30-Jun 2, 2002
Report | Scorecard

Marylebone Cricket Club v Sri Lankans at Chesterfield, Jun 6-8, 2002
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3rd Test: England v Sri Lanka at Manchester, Jun 13-17, 2002
Report | Scorecard

Sri Lankans v West Indies A at Hove, Jun 19, 2002
Scorecard

Somerset v Sri Lankans at Taunton, Jun 21, 2002
Scorecard

Gloucestershire v Sri Lankans at Bristol, Jun 23, 2002
Scorecard

Northamptonshire v Sri Lankans at Northampton, Jun 24, 2002
Scorecard

England v Sri Lanka at Nottingham, Jun 27, 2002
Report | Scorecard

India v Sri Lanka at The Oval, Jun 30, 2002
Report | Scorecard

England v Sri Lanka at Leeds, Jul 2, 2002
Report | Scorecard

India v Sri Lanka at Birmingham, Jul 6, 2002
Report | Scorecard

England v Sri Lanka at Manchester, Jul 7, 2002
Report | Scorecard

India v Sri Lanka at Bristol, Jul 11, 2002
Report | Scorecard

© John Wisden & Co