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At Galle, December 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 2007. Drawn. Toss: England. Test debut: U. W. M. B. C. A. Welagedara.
Much of the drama took place before a ball was bowled. This was the first Test to be played in Galle since the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 had devastated the region. Thus the match took on a relevance way beyond the norm; it became a sign of the spirit of renewal within Sri Lanka.
Yet four days before the game was due to start, doubts were being expressed about whether it could happen at all. Torrential rain, which had made a lake of the outfield, hampered preparations within and beyond the boundary. As the players sought somewhere dry to practise, gravel was still being laid alongside the newly erected pavilion, and the skeletons of the temporary stands in front of the majestic old fort had only just started to appear. The outfield could not be cut, and there were concerns that the pitch might remain a quagmire.
But the game had to take place in Galle, come what may, and so it did. Indeed, it was a minor miracle that so much cricket was played on what transpired to be the best pitch of the series. The rains never fully abated and the groundstaff were stretched to their limit, heaving tarpaulins over the entire playing area time and time again, dutifully springing into action after every deluge. Moreover, those rickety stands stayed firm throughout the five days.
So in the end neither the rain nor the last-minute building works could prevent an emotional return of cricket to Galle, an occasion which seemed to inspire Mahela Jayawardene, who hit an exquisite double-century, and the rest of his team. But there were just enough interruptions for England to escape with an ill-deserved draw, even after the humiliation of being bundled out for 81 in their first innings, with a deficit of 418. Oddly, in this series, the two matches in which England were outplayed - at Galle and Colombo - ended in draws, while the one which was much more evenly contested in Kandy brought them defeat.
It was no surprise that the surface was still damp when the game began and that Vaughan should choose to bowl upon it. Uncertainty about the pitch meant England were reluctant to play a five-man bowling attack in their attempts to level the series. Initially, there was enough movement for the pace bowlers to justify that decision, but neither Hoggard, returning in place of Broad, nor Sidebottom could exploit their window of opportunity. They had little more than an hour to get it right before the pitch dried, the ball softened and the pressure told.
At the end of an abbreviated first day Sri Lanka were 147 for four and Harmison, now demoted to first change, had been the most successful bowler. Maybe the horse had already bolted on that first evening; by the end of the second day it was way out of sight, with Jayawardene taking the reins. The home captain batted masterfully and with beautiful simplicity. Every ball was played on merit as he went on his unhurried way. With a gentle ruthlessness, he wore down the England pace trio. Meanwhile Panesar presented him with no problems whatsoever and soon the left-armer's feelings of impotence became apparent.
Vaughan, too, grew exasperated, proceeding with some unfathomable field settings for Panesar, which allowed Jayawardene to tap singles at will. Sri Lanka's captain was never required to take a risk. So he didn't. In the field, England withered away. Prior missed three catches - Jayawardene twice and the dynamic Dilshan once - in a match he would like to forget, though it would not be easy since this Test was destined to be his last for a while; Prior was dropped for the subsequent tour of New Zealand. Jayawardene batted ten hours and ten minutes for an unbeaten 213, hitting 25 fours from 411 balls. When he finally declared on the third morning, England were physically shattered and mentally numb. Even so, there was no real excuse for a spineless batting display, which saw them take lunch on 24 for four. There were elementary errors: declining to play a shot at a straight ball (Vaughan), a schoolboyish run-out (Bell sent back by Cook), chipping the new ball to mid-on (Bopara). Vaas, snatching four cheap wickets, was the main beneficiary of the ineptitude. But Malinga contrived the most spectacular dismissal when he produced a searing bouncer which brushed the glove of the helpless Pietersen.
So England were bowled out inside 31 overs on a blameless surface. There was just time for the multi-initialled Chanaka Welagedara to take his first Test wickets but, unusually, Muralitharan had to be satisfied with just one from four overs.
Murali was busier when England followed on, even taking the one over possible on the third evening, and bowling 38 in all before the final storm descended. He dismissed Bell, who again promised a major contribution without being able to deliver. Then, in the 65th over, there was mayhem as three wickets fell in four balls.
Pietersen, brilliantly tied down by Muralitharan, and by Jayawardene who recognised the benefit of yielding no easy singles, was enticed to drive without quite reaching the pitch of the ball and was caught at short midwicket. Collingwood, over-balancing, was stumped off his second delivery, while Bopara, eager to avoid a pair, was startled when Jayawardene flicked the ball back from first slip while he was contemplating a single. So poor Bopara had acquired three consecutive Test ducks.
Meanwhile, Cook was achieving something that had eluded every other Englishman throughout the series: a hundred. He batted six hours, hit some breathtaking drives off the back foot, and provided the only solace for a weary touring team. This was Cook's seventh Test century, reached three days before his 23rd birthday. Only three other players have scored so many centuries at such a tender age: Sir Donald Bradman, Javed Miandad and Sachin Tendulkar. Which suggests that Cook might become quite a good player.
Fortunately for England, the rain returned soon after Cook's dismissal. Amid the post-match pleasantries the most telling - and damning - remark came from the decorous, whispered voice of Jayawardene: "I think we wanted to win this series more than they did."
Man of the Match: D. P. M. D. Jayawardene.
Man of the Series: D. P. M. D. Jayawardene.