January 18, 2021

Are England vs Sri Lanka contests underrated?

Three of our mightiest talents get to burrowing

Sri Lanka and England's great rivalry really took off from Muttiah Muralitharan's 16 for 220 at The Oval in 1998 © Getty Images

Andrew Fidel Fernando, Sri Lanka correspondent: I know when we decided we were going to do a discussion on England v Sri Lanka contests, we were talking about cricket, but just so you are warned, I'm going to be bringing up Governor General Robert Brownrigg and his brutal crushing of the Sri Lankan hill country rebellion into it at every available opportunity.

Andrew Miller, UK editor: Seems utterly reasonable to me.

Alan Gardner, deputy editor: What is a discussion of England-Sri Lanka rivalry without a mention of "Big Nose" Brownrigg, eh?

Fernando: This is the kind of guilt I was hoping you'd both come in here with.

Miller: As we all know, England getting duffed up by colonials makes the world a better place, so hurrah for that.

Fernando: Should we do this chronologically? Though Sri Lanka weren't much of a Test team in the '80s (due respect to Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, the Ratnayake non-brothers, and the rest of the clan).

Gardner: Sri Lanka gave a more than decent account of themselves against Keith Fletcher's boys on debut.

Fernando: They were even excellent on their Lord's debut, where Sidath Wettimuny very nearly got a first-innings double ton, and Duleep Mendis kept hooking Botham and Co into the stands. Sri Lanka's batsmen were so good in that game (on a flat bed, admittedly), Botham was reduced to bowling offspin in the second innings.

Gardner: Would be rude not to link an excellent I Was There piece that a colleague - I won't name names - produced a while back.

Sidath Wettimuny made 190 on Sri Lanka's debut at Lord's in 1984 Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

Miller: Nineteen ninety-eight is probably the obvious starting point, because everything tilted on its axis from there.

Fernando: Yes, and we've had so many memorable series since then, that even the very good showings of the '80s and '90s kinda pale into insignificance.

Miller: Sri Lanka were basically a rest cure for a decade, 1984, 1988 and 1991, they were quiet comedowns after a bruising West Indies series, and Sri Lanka were patronised on every visit.

Gardner: Didn't the BBC cut to the horse racing, or the news, before the winning runs in 1988? Kim Barnett's only Test?

Miller: I particularly remember Graham Gooch meting out some outrageously bored strokeplay against Don Anurasiri in 1991. He seemed to spend two-thirds of his 174 trying to get out with what we might now classify as switch-hitting, but they were basically reverse slogs.

Ratnayake and Ramanayake were interchangeably average. And if Aravinda de Silva was obviously of the highest class, there seemed no inkling that this would become one of the most captivating rivalries of the 21st century; 1998 changed that.

Gardner: Sri Lanka, Murali, late summer at The Oval... England might as well have walked into the ring with Mike Tyson and stuck their jaw out, right?

Fernando: England had beaten South Africa earlier in the summer and were on a high. And Sri Lanka had never come close to beating them at home. They were the world champs and everything, but I don't get the feeling England were worried. The game was kind of an annoyance after a long summer.

Gardner: And they probably felt they were safe enough after scoring 445 in the first dig...

Miller: Indeed. Graeme Hick and John Crawley, two men seemingly competing for one Ashes berth, both made hundreds. And as for Murali, if you will bowl 60 overs in an innings, of course you're likely to get seven wickets. Big deal ...

Fernando: They'd kept Sri Lanka in the field for 158 overs. Almost third-new-ball territory.

What floors me even now is the confidence Sri Lanka had in that match. To put England in because Murali needed a rest between innings (and they didn't want to get into a situation where they'd need to think about enforcing a follow-on!), and then to concede almost 450 and still see a path to victory.

Enter the berserker: Jayasuriya cut, drove and savaged his way to 213 in response to England's 445 at the Oval © Getty Images

Miller: Never better exemplified than by Sanath Jayasuriya's response in Sri Lanka's innings. As you all know, Angus Fraser holds a special place in my affections, but Jesus, the treatment he received was beyond contemptuous.

Gardner: The only seamer not to concede a gallon, so...

Fernando: You don't often say this about Jayasuriya innings, but he drove beautifully that day.

Gardner: Mark Butcher getting stumped off a big-ragging turner in the second innings told you things might be about to go pear-shaped. As Butch put it himself on Switch Hit a while back: "What the hell is going on here?"

Fernando: I don't think there was any other team in the world that would have, at that stage, done what SL did. I don't think anyone else would have conceived this strategy, or at the very least, believed that it would be their best chance of success.

Miller: The confidence was intoxicating. Like Adelaide '06, but with even more certainty. Had any team ever before gone into a game more or less predicting their spinner would take 16 wickets and that every other facet of their performance was geared towards making it happen? And it became their standard game plan for the next decade!

Fernando: Yeah, everything was just a funnel toward Murali getting those wickets. (And this was pre-doosra, even pre-greatness, Murali.)

Miller: But it lit the blue touchpaper on a ferocious rivalry. Suddenly we were back at Adelaide the following winter, engaging in such an acrimonious follow-up that we even did a whole day of retro commentary to do it justice.

Fernando: Before we get there, do we need to fawn over Murali's 9 for 65? It's been talked about a lot, as a major event in the Murali story. But to get those nine wickets he had to bowl 54.2 overs (taking the tally up near 115 for the match). This would essentially become his cricketing life for the next decade. Ridiculous numbers of overs bowled. Ludicrous expectations from his team, which he frequently exceeded. All while getting sniped at about his action.

Miller: It was his wrist that got me every time, not his elbow. How on earth did he do that?! He was, as Nasser Hussain would spend his captaincy career harping on about, the definitive mystery spinner. And in a pre-slo-mo era, when exhaustive analysis was impossible. The uninitiated had no choice but to play him from the pitch, and fail time and time again.

England's loss to Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup was epochal © Getty Images

Gardner: That wrist moved like a helicopter... and the fizz on a couple of those deliveries, such as Graeme Hick's lbw, eesh. You'd need a protractor and set square to play that.

Miller: Going back a little, though, there was the small matter of Sri Lanka's World Cup win too. The arse-on-plate-handing at Faisalabad was a truly epoch-defining contest for both teams, but still the England board couldn't bring themselves to accept that the "little Lankans" belonged at the top table. Or, more pertinently, were enough of a box-office draw, which seems laughable now, given the majesty of their line-up in the early 2000s.

Fernando: I've never previously drawn this line, but perhaps it was how utterly emphatic that Faisalabad win was that led to the events of The Oval 1998.

Miller: Almost certainly. Jayasuriya carried on tonking it as if Phil DeFreitas was still bowling offies.

Gardner: Getting royally dumped on by nations you have previously colonised is pretty much standard operating procedure for English cricket. And it can inspire a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome. Sri Lanka became one of my default picks to play with on Brian Lara Cricket, and I would also manage Lancashire on International Cricket Captain purely to oversee Murali wheeling away for hours.

Fernando: Now on to one of England's rare glories of that era - their series win in Sri Lanka in 2001.

Gardner: This must have been a series you loved, Fidel - one of the massive underdog successes. Plucky Nasser and his boys rocking up and sticking it to the man.

Fernando: Truly. And I mean this with no sarcasm, because at the time I thought the whole point of England was that there's a team everyone could feel sorry for.

Gardner: Just look at Sri Lanka's top order: Atapattu, Jayasuriya, Sangakkara, Aravinda, Jayawardene, Dilshan, Arnold. Then Murali and Vaas to mop the plate.

Fernando: Arguably Sri Lanka's greatest top order.

England's 2000-01 series win in Sri Lanka: an underdog story? © Getty Images

Miller: Without equivocation, that 2000-01 series win (and Asian double after beating Pakistan earlier that winter) was England's greatest victory in more than a decade. And to think the rivalry hadn't even been acknowledged until it was red-hot. I'd put the win in India in 1984-85 as the only comparable achievement. The 1986-87 Ashes was the most low-grade nonsense ever.

Fernando: And they got properly ruined in the first match at Galle too. Innings victory. Jayasuriya got eight wickets in that game. Murali was surely going to be picking his teeth with the bones of his opponents by the end of the series.

Gardner: Instead, it became his last home series (after 1994) where his strike rate was above 100 (hat tip to the Guardian's Rob Smyth for that stonker).

Miller: Sangakkara also announced himself as a natural-born Test cricketer from the outset.

Gardner: And a massive wind-up merchant behind the stumps

Miller: Not least with Mike Atherton. Who, though he manages to wear his learning pretty lightly in his newspaper columns, did rather enjoy going onto the field knowing he was the most intelligent man out there. But suddenly this gobshite Lankan lawyer was out-brainsing him on debut and he didn't much like that!

Fernando: Sanga at the time did not wear his learning lightly. His early career sledging and wicketkeeping hijinks are an entire separate Rabbit Hole.

Gardner: England were on the receiving end of some absolute howlers in Galle. Although, much to the chagrin of the home side, BC Cooray somewhat evened the scales in the second Test, at Kandy. Nasser Hussain's blood-and-guts 109 - his first hundred in 15 months - had just a couple of rather fortunate bad-pad let-offs, to put it mildly

Fernando: What I will not understand about the second and third Tests of that series is how Robert Croft got all those wickets. Croft probably wouldn't have made it into a Lankan XI made entirely of spinners at the time.

Gardner: Such arrogance. You've learned the lessons of empire well, old boy.

Fernando: The third game was even more crazy, in a way.

Thorpedoed: Graham Thorpe's 113 in the second innings in Colombo propelled England to their win in the 2000-01 series © Getty Images

Gardner: Thorpe's Colombo masterclass. Peter Falk couldn't have played it better.

Fernando: Eighty-one all out in the third innings. This is a batting order with at least five batsmen who are now considered serious Sri Lankan greats. One or two all-timers.

Gardner: And now you've been done by the King of Spain, too. Ashley Giles with 4 for 11, having barely been able to buy a wicket all tour.

Fernando: You've got Murali getting two wickets in the match, while Giles and Croft are combining to take 11 against one of the top Lankan top orders. What's wrong, Murali? Can you only get wickets at The Oval?

Miller: Probably needs a doosra in his armoury, to be fair. To compete with such classical assassins.

Thorpe's mastery of all conditions that winter, in fact that 24 months, up to and including his ninja-quick double-century in Nathan Astle's Test in Christchurch, was astonishing.

Gardner: Thorpe's 145 runs without dismissal in the match were clearly the difference. That winter he was an absolute don, having seen England home in the dark in Karachi, too.

Fernando: Gotta be one of England's great series comebacks, no?

Miller: Easily. I still rate it every bit as high as the 2005 Ashes. Because it was a far more flawed England team, only recently ranked as the worst in the world. Normal service resumed three years later, when England were crushed in Colombo by an innings and 215, then their third worst thumping ever

Fernando: Speaking of comebacks, Sri Lanka's 2006 series in England…

Gardner: The summer that broke Andrew Flintoff?

Miller: Indeed, as I may have spelled out previously, that Lord's Test rearguard by Sri Lanka marked the most emphatic of full stops on one of the mightiest mini-eras any player can have enjoyed.

Sri Lanka's tour of England in 2006: The beginning of the end for Andrew Flintoff © Getty Images

Fifty overs with a dodgy ankle, in a futile victory bid, and Fred was never the same.

Fernando: It didn't help that England insisted on dropping every Sri Lanka player who came to bat in that innings. Part of a colonial reparations project?

Miller: You're trying too hard to shoehorn the references now.

Fernando: Any excuse to throw in a link of Mahela Jayawardene playing. God, what a batsman.

Gardner: Eight Test hundreds against England, more than any other team. Although they did all come in SL or at Lord's, so...

Gardner: The 2006 tour I recall most vividly for another ODI pasting - 5-0 and Sri Lanka so dominant that they might as well have been riding around on palanquins while being fanned by shirtless Barmies.

Miller: Jayasuriya again... his nonsense did span the ages.

Gardner: Saj Mahmood's series figures: 21 overs, 3 for 173.

Fernando: Hah. I remember following that Headingley game on Cricinfo. I saw England had made 320 or something. Then checked back hours later, and it took a full two minutes for my brain to compute what was going on. Such a breathless and unceasing pants-ing.

Gardner: Thirteen overs to spare!

Fernando: I recall in a Jayasuriya interview a couple of years later him saying how he felt sorry for the England opening bowlers that day, because they hadn't (at that stage) played for England again after he had shamed them so thunderously. But anyway, any other enduring memories from 2006?

Miller: Oh yes. KP's switch-hit at Edgbaston. Off Murali no less.

When left is right: Kevin Pietersen launches into his switch hit at Edgbaston © Getty Images

Fernando: I recall KP's gloriousness at Edgbaston. And that was against probably the best attack Sri Lanka ever took to England - Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga, with Farveez Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara also around. Plus main man Murali of course.

Miller: KP was magisterial that summer. His first flowering of utter greatness. Post-2005, most of England's main players wilted for one reason or another - Flintoff, Vaughan, Trescothick, Simon Jones, ultimately Strauss too. But KP just seized his stage. He took it from Flintoff, in whose shadow he'd previously been, much to his badly disguised chagrin.

Gardner: Of course, Sri Lanka's upgrade from playing just one Test at the end of the summer was to being the hors d'oeuvre, welcomed over in May when hand-warmers were almost as useful as mystery spinners. Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that they won at Trent Bridge, because it was actually summer by then.

Fernando: I just remember watching Murali bowl his first couple of overs on that fourth that day and essentially knowing the game was finished.

Gardner: The doosra going through England like a week-old kebab.

Fernando: But while we have time, we should probably move on to talking about my favourite England-Sri Lanka series of all - 2014.

Gardner: A discussion truly worthy of the great iceberg of a rivalry - acres of beef lurking below the surface. I'm just having fun reminiscing.

Fernando: Me too. There is an unreasonable amount of good cricket played by these sides. I guess they've often been at around the same level? Middling teams, essentially.

Gardner: The 2014 tour, then. It was one of cricket's more niche sub-genres: a two-Test classic. Payback for 2000-01? England's erratic genius against the old-school tie of Sri Lankan conformity?

Fernando: Sri Lankan teams would never do something as prosaic as interpret a series win as an serving of decades-old revenge. They're more interested in days-old revenge. They felt properly wronged on that tour, because in the ODIs leading up to the Tests, they had run out Jos Buttler backing up and it had become the usual media frenzy. And Sachithra Senanayake was reported for his action (and few have needed to be reported more).

The face of a five-for: Dhammika Prasad celebrates © Getty Images

Miller: So many chips on so many shoulders.

Gardner: I personally loved how King Sanga set out his stall well before the tour to get himself on the Lord's honours board. Signed up for a county spell with Durham (the sort of place where Sri Lankans had previously been sent to do penance during the English spring), came in super-prepared, made scores of 147, 61, 79 and 55.

Fernando: It was very on-brand for Sanga. I wonder if he would truly have felt whole as a batsman if he'd not got there that day.

Miller: And there was the context of English cricket in the post-KP fall-out. As toxic as any context has been.

Fernando: True, I remember every bloody conversation on tour being about KP.

Miller: But thanks to KP, England had gone from being the team that the rest of the world wanted to see lose to being the team that the rest of the world and half of England wanted to see lose. His saga basically foreshadowed Brexit. Alastair Cook clinging on by his fingertips, with Giles Clarke's endorsement of him as having the "right type of family" hardly helping his cause.

Gardner: I had a real soft spot for Dhammika Prasad, who took five wickets in the win at Headingley - such a meme-worthy look of delight on his face when celebrating.

Fernando: I still have a soft spot. He's one of the great over-actors in cricket. Everything from the run-up to the appeal to the celebration.

Gardner: I have a fetish for unsung Sri Lankan pace bowlers: Nuwan Zoysa, Dilhara Fernando, Chanaka Welegedara, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep, Dhammika.

Fernando: Let's talk about Pradeep in that Lord's match, though. As a batsman only.

Gardner: Dismissed headbutting his stumps in the first innings.

Miller: Happens to the best of us.

See stumps, hit stumps: Nuwan Pradeep meets the stumps head-on © Getty Images

Gardner: And then not-quite dismissed off the final ball of the match.

Fernando: The fact that he even had to face up was because Rangana Herath had done the most Rangana Herath thing imaginable. He was batting nicely and had five balls left to see out the draw. Stuart Broad bowls one that's a back of a length. It kisses Herath's glove on the way to the keeper. Herath, with a match to save, and knowing that Pradeep the hit-wicket artist was in next, walks without waiting for the umpire. Turned out his glove had been off the bat and he wasn't out.

Gardner: Herath is, to borrow the nickname given to David Steele, literally the bank clerk who went to war. Although you sense he only signed up for the free rations.

Fernando: The confidence in Pradeep's review of the lbw decision against him on the penultimate ball was memorable as well. As Chris Martin had gone by then, he was probably the biggest bunny in Test cricket. But the force with which he formed that "T" - he was almost scoffing at that decision. And he turned out to have hit the ball, of course.

Gardner: Imagine if it'd been back in the days of BC and Rudi making the decisions, without DRS.

Fernando: I think everyone went to Headingley thinking, wow, SL got away with one there, but they are going to get decked on this pitch (as South Asian teams are wont to do).

Miller: And how we laffed. (Me included, as I was a KP-er at the time.)

Fernando: Not laughing anymore? Is this like Bregret?

Miller: Even I accept he would probably not be in England's first-choice XI right now.

Gardner: I'm sure we can all agree that it was better this way. Headingley was operatic in its story arc: Sri Lanka batting again 100 runs behind, fall to 277 for 7, only for an Angelo Mathews epic (and Rangana's 48) to turn the game around. Then England begin day five five down, and not a prayer of saving the Test...

Fernando: It was truly a dramatic opus. Moeen Ali was almost Dravidesque on that final day - such was the manner in which he married style and grace to a resplendent doggedness.

Gardner: Instead of being flat-capped to death, it became one of the great wins by a touring side in England. But how twitchy did you get during the full 20 overs of defiance put together by England's last-wicket pair, Fidel?

Rebel in a losing cause: Moeen Ali's maiden Test hundred couldn't save England at Headingley in 2014 © PA Photos

Fernando: I was certain that the ball would come. I had thought it would be from Herath. James Anderson had to bat an entire hour. It just didn't seem like he would. And then in the last three overs, every ball was electric. It was such a dramatic final day that you'd almost forgotten that Mathews had played the innings of his not-insubstantial career the day before.

Gardner: Almost tragic, in retrospective, given how flighty Moeen's batting has become - partly down to England making him bat No. 8 a lot of the time).

Miller: It was as if the hurt of failed doggedness was too great for him to risk being dogged ever again

Gardner: And then it was another unheralded SL seamer who pulls it out - Shaminda Eranga with the perfectly directed bumper.

Miller: We've completely overlooked the 2012 series, where Herath bowled Sri Lanka to victory in Galle, and another KP classic in Colombo.

Fernando: There was also that one fantastic period of play from England at the SSC in 2018, where Ben Foakes and Adil Rashid combined to derail Sri Lanka.

Miller: Total cricket!

Fernando: I still don't understand this term. Is other cricket less than total?

Miller: That is because you are not as clever as Ed Smith. Or Sanga. Or Athers.

Fernando: A veneration of the England chief selector's unattainable intelligence is as good a place as any to end.

Gardner: Great. I'm off to read up on Pradeep Mathew.

Fernando: I'm going to go seethe about Brownrigg some more.

Miller: And I'm off to recall Jason Brown's performances in the tour warm-ups in 2000-01.