Test matches (3): Sri Lanka 1, England 0
One-day internationals (5): Sri Lanka 2, England 3
In an unusual arrangement England made two separate tours of Sri Lanka in late 2007, either side of Sri Lanka's Test series in Australia. The two trips presented a distinct contrast. The first, for the one-day series, inspired England's followers with hope. Defeating Sri Lanka 3-2 in their own country was not merely revenge for the 5-0 humiliation inflicted by Sri Lanka in England the previous year; it was the best one-day cricket England had played overseas since the 1992 World Cup, to be bracketed alongside the rugged home victories over Australia in 2005 as England's finest performances in the 15 subsequent years. The kernel of a team to compete seriously in the 2011 World Cup in Asia became discernible.
England's second tour, for the Test series, filled their followers with despair. The downward spiral since the 2005 Ashes was almost complete by the end of the Third Test in Galle, when Michael Vaughan admitted England were inadequate in all three disciplines - and this was not the whole picture. Fallible as they were in batting, especially the middle order, and in catching, including the wicketkeeping, and unclever as they were in bowling, the greatest single deficiency was England's lack of game-toughness. In every Test they had an early chance to dominate, and they blew it, whereas Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardene embodied game-toughness as he batted England out of the last two Tests.
Muttiah Muralitharan missed the one-day series, nursing a bicep injury in his right arm so he would be fit for Australia. The difference between the one-day and Test performances was partly due to his absence then return. But England were different too. In the one-dayers they were young, energetic and quick-witted; in the Tests they were older, slower and more ponderous of mind as well as foot. There was reason to believe they would have won the one-day series even if Muralitharan had played. Their batting never fired on either tour, save for Alastair Cook at the end of each series, but England's one-day line-up had considerable depth, their fielding was excellent because their lack of slip fielders was not exposed, and their bowling was penetrating, thanks to Ryan Sidebottom with the new ball and the presence at last of an attacking spin bowler in Graeme Swann.
England's success, and failure, stemmed from their preparation. As soon as they were knocked out of the ICC World Twenty20 they did not hang around in South Africa waiting for their booked flights but got on the plane to Colombo for extra acclimatisation and practice. The few improvements in England's one-day form have usually followed a sustained period of practising together. They were outplayed in the first of the three internationals to be staged on the slow pitches of Dambulla, but learned rapidly. Guided by Ottis Gibson, in his first assignment as England's bowling coach, the pacemen abandoned their traditional habits of bowling at the same speed just outside off stump and copied the Sri Lankans Farveez Maharoof and Dilhara Fernando: they bowled straight, and they bowled either "effort balls" or slower balls. Sidebottom, whose only previous overseas internationals were in Zimbabwe six years earlier, led the way and took 12 wickets: no one-day bowler, except perhaps Andrew Flintoff, had performed better abroad for England since 1992, and Sidebottom's wickets came mainly at the start of an innings. In the last four internationals he bowled 35 tone-setting balls at Sanath Jayasuriya, who scored only seven runs off them, and dismissed him twice. Given new, not established, batsmen to bowl at, Swann seized the opportunity of his recall after almost eight years, attacked the stumps, and spun the ball more than England's previous one-day off-spinners.
England's one-day fielding made a large advance as well, except at slip, where Owais Shah tried his hand (had he succeeded there, Shah might have taken the spare batting place in the Test series ahead of Ravi Bopara). Phil Mustard had such good hands that he quickly settled in as wicketkeeper after Matt Prior had broken his right thumb in South Africa, and, as opening batsman, gave the innings initial impetus even though he failed to go on (the top order of both sides struggled, especially in the second innings under lights). For once, opposing batsmen felt hemmed in on both sides of the wicket, by the captain Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell square on the off side and by Bopara at midwicket, while James Anderson was quick and strongarmed anywhere away from the wicket.
When Sri Lanka returned from a 2-0 defeat in Australia, they were determined not to be surprised by England in the Test series. In essence, they resorted to the traditional Asian strategy: they caught England on a slow turner in the First Test then, if not quite shutting up shop, batted them out of the rest of the series. Apparently under the direction of Muralitharan in his home town, the groundstaff at Kandy removed most of the grass from what was normally Sri Lanka's bounciest pitch. The strategy nearly backfired: England were about 20 minutes away from holding out for a draw, thanks to the slowness of the pitch, until the second new ball came along. They might well have escaped if Asad Rauf (who, like Daryl Harper, had a poor series, while Aleem Dar was excellent) had not given Sidebottom out lbw after an inside edge.
In Kandy, as in Colombo and Galle, England took the first session comfortably, but so soft was their cricket thereafter that they never rammed their advantage home. Matthew Hoggard launched the series with one of the finest opening spells of outswing that can have been bowled for England, up there with the pick of Ian Botham, Dominic Cork or Fred Trueman: perfect outswingers, on a string, brought him 10-3-21- 4. A Test team reduced to 42 for five shouldn't escape - with a draw perhaps, but not a victory - yet Sri Lanka did. Vaughan did not bring Hoggard back straight after lunch, and when he did, at 120 for five, the outswing and inspiration had gone. A couple of edges, generated by Anderson and Bopara, fell short of slip and keeper as the pitch lost what little pace it had. Kumar Sangakkara, when 24, had edged Anderson where no third slip was, even though England were on top. Never has a Test cricketer had such local knowledge to bring to bear as Sangakkara: the Asgiriya Stadium was his school ground. His partner in the reviving century partnership, Prasanna Jayawardene, who would not have been high on the list of batsmen analysed by England's management before the game, was surprisingly good in his footwork. Above all, though, there was no sign of urgency from England, no desperation, no realisation that if they failed to seize this moment the rest of their tour could well be doomed: no game-toughness.
And while the First Test, and the outcome of the series, were in the balance, England's lack of preparation told. Their schedule for the second tour had them play a three-day practice game, where players could come and go as they liked provided only 11 were on the field, and a three-day first-class game. This was simply not enough in the extreme conditions of Sri Lanka. If a touring team want to be at their peak for the start of a Test series, especially a non-Asian team touring Asia, they surely have to play a minimum of a two-day practice game and two first-class matches. The consequence was that, at the crux on day one in Kandy, Sidebottom was short of a gallop. He had not played in the first-class match in Colombo: he was rested, when a rest was the last thing he needed, as if penalised for his success in the one-day series. Never having played a first-class game in Asia, having played only one first-class game anywhere since mid-August, he did not have the confidence to bowl flat out. He was steady, not threatening as Hoggard was.
In Sidebottom's place in the first-class match, Steve Harmison was given a go, following his fortnight in South Africa with the domestic side Lions. This stood Harmison in good stead when he played in the Second and Third Tests, returning to something like his old form, but he was not in the frame for Kandy as his line was still awry. Anderson had also played in the firstclass warm-up, but that was not enough time for him to adjust to his new role. Accustomed to the new ball, he was demoted to first change in Kandy behind the other two swingers in the side, Hoggard and Sidebottom: a considerable adjustment, not least psychologically. When Jayasuriya took six fours off Anderson's over early in Sri Lanka's second innings, the match and series tipped irrevocably in the hosts' favour, and the most attacking of opening batsmen retired from Test cricket on an appropriate note.
England's lack of fluency in batting, while partly attributable to the slow nature of Sri Lankan pitches, also stemmed from this shortage of matchpractice. Like Sidebottom, Collingwood was omitted from the first-class game, so that Shah and Bopara could stage a shoot-out for the final batting place. Collingwood therefore went in at a critical moment in Kandy, when England's first innings was faltering, having batted only once, and naturally had to concentrate on hanging in, not dominating, when they needed someone to assert himself over Muralitharan. The first two days of the tour opener in Colombo - little more than middle practice - had been limited by rain, which washed out the post-tea sessions; England did not bat until the third day, when each batsman had to be rationed to a couple of hours before retiring. The first-class match was played on a result pitch where the ball swung, so again nobody struck form and made a big hundred.
In the Second Test, England were cruising at 133 without loss when Vaughan, after batting sublimely, clipped an off-break to short leg where Jehan Mubarak held a freakish catch between his thighs. Thereafter they surrendered control, although Sri Lanka were so defensive in their approach that England were not hard-pressed in holding out for a draw. Again the process of surrendering the initiative, through a lack of game-toughness, was gradual yet perceptible. Cook was intent on batting his way into the series, on learning to live with Muralitharan (whom he never swept), after two low scores in Kandy. Bell, after batting in Kandy almost as sublimely as Vaughan here, let Sri Lanka take control: he had been criticised for trying to get after Muralitharan, and been caught at short midwicket when trying to hit over the top, and may have taken the criticism too much to heart. It should be recognised by all concerned that the primary function of a No. 3 is to get on top of opposing bowlers.
While England did not do their best to dominate the last two Tests, Jayawardene did. In the form of his life, the home captain gave two masterclasses on how to "bat time" - to bat all day and more - by waiting for the bad ball and invariably putting it away, not forcing the pace on grudging pitches. At Colombo he batted 578 minutes for his 195, in Galle 610 minutes for his 213 not out, yet he was not slow, scoring nearly 50 runs per 100 balls. His balance at the crease, his physical and psychological poise, were as extraordinary as his powers of concentration. For Monty Panesar it was like running into a brick wall: while Hoggard persevered, Sidebottom probed without the support of his keeper and close fielders, Harmison pounded in manfully, and Stuart Broad bowled with admirable accuracy on his Test debut, Panesar was at a loss by the end of the series. He slowed down his pace, tried over and round the wicket, and varied everything except that which he should have tried varying first of all: his angle of delivery, by using the width of the crease. Vaughan's fields allowed easy singles.
Galle's stadium, three years after it had been devastated by the tsunami, was not ready even at the eleventh hour. But as the start was delayed by two hours until noon after overnight rain, it just about passed muster. It was an emotional occasion for the local population, who attended in reassuring numbers (for the rest of the series England's supporters appeared to outnumber Sri Lanka's, except for the day when Muralitharan broke Shane Warne's Test record of 708 wickets in Kandy). Galle's pitch was easily the best of the three, much bouncier than its pre-tsunami predecessor, and Vaughan was right to send Sri Lanka in. It would have been a more convincing move however if England, 1-0 down, had selected five bowlers: in other words Swann instead of Bopara, who broke a finger then made a pair. Swann would have had the rough of three left-arm pace bowlers to bowl into, and by the end of the Colombo Test it had become apparent that Panesar's game was unravelling. As it was, England's three pace bowlers did not make the Sri Lankan batsmen play enough in the first two sessions, and Jayawardene shut England out again.
The relaid pitch in Galle saw the fastest bowling of the series from Lasith Malinga, which did much to prompt England's collapse for 81, their lowestever total in a Test in Asia. He took only one wicket, Kevin Pietersen with a screaming bouncer, but generated some of the panic which resulted in Bell being run out by Tillekeratne Dilshan (whose recall, in place of Mubarak, invigorated Sri Lanka's running between wickets as well as their outfielding). Not since the nadir of the 1990s or 1980s had England been a rabble in the field and collapsed with the bat on the same day. By the time the inter-monsoonal rains saved them - a third of the Galle Test was washed out - England had nowhere left to downward-spiral. So vast was the difference between the sides, who had started on equal terms, that 1-0 was not an accurate reflection.
Sri Lanka had a hard core of Mahela Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas which England could not begin to match. This hard core enabled the tall left-hander Michael Vandort to mature as an opening batsman and Prasanna Jayawardene as a wicketkeeper; he made his only two mistakes on the last day of the series. Prior, on the other hand, dropped three catches and did not go for another catchable chance, all to his right side, and missed two stumpings: misses which the bowling figures of Sidebottom (three times the sufferer) and Panesar could not absorb. The omission of Andrew Strauss, so that he could mentally rest while Bopara was given a try, deprived England of their only qualified slip-catcher. A world-class short leg, Bell tried his hand at first slip, even though he had failed to pin down the place at Warwickshire, to little avail; so Collingwood had to be the lone slip, which deprived England of their best outfielder. In Galle, when England were still attacking, Collingwood at second slip took the ball from Prior, and while polishing it walked up to the batsman Sangakkara to have another of their verbal exchanges, then returned to his position and promptly dropped the next ball: not the sort of game-toughness required. In all England dropped ten chances, failed to get a hand on two more catchable ones, and missed two stumpings: 14 chances, spread over three Tests but only four innings.
England in Sri Lanka reaped what they had sown. The outstanding question therefore was: why did they not prepare as well for the Tests as they had for the one-day internationals? And the answer was that they were not allowed the time. The four-week break between the one-day series and the Test tour was the first decent rest England's cricketers had been given by the ECB since February 2006. If they had fitted in another warm-up match before the First Test, they would have hardly had a break at all, in almost two years. Prepare, play, recover and analyse properly: the lesson handed down by the Schofield Review had not been heeded. Or the lesson handed down in most walks of life: if you are going to do something, do it properly.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Sri Lanka Cricket XI v England XI at Colombo (PSS), Sep 28, 2007
Tour Match: Sri Lanka Cricket Board President's XI v England XI at Colombo (CCC), Nov 20-22, 2007