First Test Match

Sri Lanka v England

Lawrence Booth

At Galle, December 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2003. Drawn. Toss: Sri Lanka. Test debuts: K. A. D. M. Fernando; P. D. Collingwood.

The fort at Galle witnessed stout defence © Getty Images

Drawn Test matches rarely set the pulse racing. This one nearly induced several coronaries. At tea on the final day, Sri Lanka were three wickets away from completing a sixth successive victory at Galle. Instead, England's tailenders launched one of the most improbable rearguards in Test history. When, after much agonising, the umpires offered the light to the final pair at 5.42 p.m., a huge English cheer echoed off the walls of the old Dutch fort that guards the stadium. It was a mixture of relief and disbelief, but not necessarily in that order.

England's week had ended as it began: with a heroic rescue act. Two days before the start of the Test, their off-spinner Gareth Batty was saved from drowning by lifeguards after he was caught in a strong cross-current while body-surfing. Back on terra firma six days later, Batty was one of the saviours himself, although by that stage he was used to swimming against the tide.

The Sri Lankans were devastated. As Giles and Hoggard marched briskly to the pavilion, where the England balcony was awash with hugs and high-fives, the fielders lingered in the middle, urging the umpires to double-check their light meters. They had enjoyed the best of the game, but the worst of the umpiring; one home estimate made the error count ten-two in England's favour. Placatory in public, the Sri Lankans were furious in private.

Sri Lanka were favourites from the moment Tillekeratne won a crucial toss. They packed their side with five spinners, and handed a Test debut to the fast bowler Dinusha Fernando. England played just two spinners - Giles and Batty - and gave a first Test cap to Paul Collingwood, a last-minute replacement for Hussain, who was suffering from flu and missed his first overseas Test for 41 matches.

Three wickets from the rejuvenated Giles helped England shade a rain-affected first day after Sri Lanka's openers had put on a studious 76. The classy Sangakkara fought back with 71, but when Flintoff struck in consecutive overs before lunch on the second day to make it 239 for seven, the initiative was England's. Tail-end resistance, however, was to become a theme of the series. Dharmasena and Vaas added 40, before Muralitharan made hay with an agricultural run-a-ball 38.

But his work for the day was not done. Trescothick and Vaughan raced to fifty, only for Muralitharan to have Trescothick caught behind - fortuitously, replays suggested. Soon afterwards, he bowled Vaughan through his legs as he attempted to pad away a big off-break. It was a huge psychological blow, and the effects reverberated for the rest of the series.

On the third morning, Butcher, dropped by the bowler Muralitharan on 18, and Thorpe, given not out when he edged Jayasuriya to slip on 29, somehow extended their partnership to 75. But when the resourceful Vaas removed Thorpe, England crumbled, losing eight for 93. Muralitharan embarrassed an inexperienced middle order with liberal use of the wrong'un, then mopped up a swishing tail to finish with seven for 46, Galle's best Test figures. Butcher said later he and Thorpe had read him only half the time.

Sri Lanka led by 96, but were in danger of throwing away their advantage when they slipped to 85 for five. But Jayawardene shared in a succession of middle-sized stands, including 46 with Muralitharan, whose two Keystone Kops innings had helped tack 86 on to England's eventual target of 323. Jayawardene batted for more than five hours of selfless grind and was the only player who showed any confidence handling Giles, whose Test-best match haul of eight for 132 represented something of a rebirth.

He was not, however, the No. 1 spinner in the match, although England's task of keeping out Murali was made easier when rain ended the fourth day early, enabling them to enter the final day, delayed by half an hour because of a wet patch on the outfield, with all ten wickets intact. But Vaughan edged a leaden-footed drive, and Trescothick and Thorpe fell to slogs that would have been more at home in a one-day game.

Lunch was taken at 84 for three, yet it could have been worse. In the final over of the session, the third umpire, Gamini Silva, was asked to rule on whether Collingwood's deflection to silly point was a bump-ball. It was not - but Silva strayed beyond his brief by deciding that Collingwood, four at the time, had not touched the ball. Crucially, he would frustrate Sri Lanka for another 44 overs.

Even so, the decision did not seem to matter when Vaas removed Butcher, for another gutsy half-century, and Flintoff in successive overs; nor when Read and Collingwood followed before tea. But Batty hung around for an hour, and although he spoiled things by heaving across the line to give Muralitharan ten wickets in a Test for the 12th time, Sri Lanka's bowlers were fading, and so was the light.

As England tried every trick in the book to slow down the over-rate, and the umpires tested the light with over-officious regularity, the Sri Lankans became increasingly exasperated, particularly at umpire Venkat's refusal to uphold a series of stomach-churning shouts for leg-before.

Johnson kept Giles company for 41 minutes before agonisingly playing on, and it was left to Hoggard, trudging slowly out amid the catcalls, to play out a tense maiden from Muralitharan, who finished with 11 for 93. One more over from Jayasuriya to Giles and, with four overs remaining, the umpires consulted for the last time. Moments later, heavy rain began to fall.

Man of the Match: M. Muralitharan.

Close of play: First day, Sri Lanka 138-4 (Sangakkara 39, Samaraweera 1); Second day, England 97-2 (Butcher 15, Thorpe 20); Third day, Sri Lanka 99-5 (Jayawardene 14, Vaas 6); Fourth day, England 4-0 (Trescothick 4, Vaughan 0)

© John Wisden & Co. Ltd