England seem to bat better in the dark. To a list that already included Karachi during the winter before last and Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago can be added Headingley. It was 7.41 in distinctly murky conditions that Darren Gough marked his return to international cricket by hitting the winning runs with just four balls to spare as England overcame the imposing total set by a Sri Lankan team inspired by a Sanath Jayasuriya hundred.
The match started four hours late because of heavy showers throughout the morning and was restricted to a mere 32 overs a side. That did not stop the Sri Lankans from reaching a total of 240 for seven with Jayasuria leading the way with an innings of 112 from 87 balls with five sixes and nine fours. For a man who has been worried about his form, it was a marvellous transformation but one that was considerably aided by some sub-standard bowling that wilted in the face of the onslaught.
Gough announced that he was back in international cricket with a wicket from the first ball of his second over when Romesh Kaluwitharana skied a drive into the covers. It was something of an unnecessary shot, for there were already 26 runs on the board as a result of poor Matthew Hoggard going for 19 off the second over of the innings. That included three wides as he strove to control the swing that took the ball either down the leg side or onto the middle of Jayasuriya's bat.
The second wicket partnership with Marvan Atapattu added 92 from just 86 balls, with Atapattu scoring just 18 of them. The Sri Lankan captain went to his fifty from 42 balls, taking just a further 36 to reach his twelfth one-day international hundred. It was an innings that contained savage strokeplay, but questions have to be asked about the wisdom of bowling so much on his legs. It was not long before it was found that he could play in that area, but England's bowlers persisted in testing him out.
No other batsman offered substantial support, but then it could be said that he did not need support. He was eventually fifth out with the score on 201 in the 28th over when he skied Hoggard to long on to give the bowler some consolation amid the carnage. Upul Chandana came closest to maintaining the momentum with 30 runs from 13 balls before he fell lbw to Gough.
Gough then bowled Chaminda Vaas to make sure he had respectable figures. Andrew Flintoff's two for 18 off seven overs showed what could be done by avoiding the leg side and keeping to a length, but the other bowling figures do not bear close examination from an English point of view.
England's reply got off to the worst possible start when Nick Knight gave a return catch to Vaas in the first over of the innings, but Ronnie Irani was promoted to three in the order and began stroking the ball around with authority. He and Marcus Trescothick were going shot for shot as they put on 68 in 51 balls.
Irani went for one big drive too many to sky the ball into the covers having hit five fours in his 27, but Flintoff was an able and willing replacement when it came to keeping the momentum going. He perished at deep mid-wicket for 20 having faced only 13 balls - eleven more than Nasser Hussain who hooked to deep square leg.
When Kumar Sangakkara's throw from deep square leg accounted for Graham Thorpe with the aid of the third umpire and several replays, it appeared that England's challenge was fading as quickly as the light. However, Paul Collingwood played with verve to pick up the baton once Trescothick's innings had come to an end. After hitting 11 fours in his 60 ball 82, he flicked Jayasuriya to long on.
Alec Stewart joined him with a close finish in prospect but the light fading and the required rate rising. If Collingwood got the partnership going, Stewart was a willing accomplice as he ran and scampered and unleashed some searing shots to the boundary. There were five of those and a straight six in his 31 ball innings that produced a priceless 38 runs.
He lost Collingwood when just four runs were required, allowing Gough to come in on his home ground. Ever the man for a bit of drama, Gough saw the target come one run closer thanks to a wide from Dilhara Fernando, got a couple of snorters, but took a single off the last ball to keep the strike. There was a hit and a miss off the first ball of the final over before Gough calmly lifted Nuwan Zoysa over the covers for the two runs that took England through to their win and, in all probability, the final at Lord's on July 13th.