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Sri Lanka's impressive Lord's debut

On paper, when England and Sri Lanka met for the first time in England at Lord's in the late summer of 1984, there should have only been one winner ... but Sri Lanka had other ideas

Sid Wettimuny on his way to 190 against England - he batted for 18 minutes short of 11 hours  •  Wisden Cricket Monthly

Sid Wettimuny on his way to 190 against England - he batted for 18 minutes short of 11 hours  •  Wisden Cricket Monthly

On paper, when England and Sri Lanka met for the first time in England at Lord's in the late summer of 1984, there should have only been one winner.
Since their first Test two-and-a-half years earlier, Sri Lanka had lost eight and drawn three of the 11 games they had played, and had been well beaten in the only two to take place outside the subcontinent. In their only previous meeting with England - their Test debut in February 1982 - they had lost after a good first innings.
The two sides' build-up to the match could not have been different. Sri Lanka arrived a month beforehand and had acclimatised with a series of six three-day county games. They had drawn four and lost two of them - a sole win came in a one-day less-than-intense game against the Duchess of Norfolk's XI - and although their batsmen had shown form, their bowlers lacked the control or experience to bowl opponents out, something they only managed once in seven games.
England, meanwhile, were punch-drunk after being relentlessly and clinically dissected by West Indies, losing every Test of their five-match series at a time such a drubbing was unheard of. By the end of the decade it was a depressingly familiar scoreline for English supporters.
England took the unusual step of naming the starting XI on the Sunday before the match, rather than expected 12 or 13-man squad. And it was the same side which had just been thrashed by West Indies at The Oval. "It was more of a reward for services rendered in a difficult cause," noted John Woodcock in the Times. There was an air of arrogance about the selectors' attitude, almost treating the Test as something less than taxing at the end of a gruelling summer.
On the morning of the Test, Woodcock predicted "an agreeable if one-sided match". His views reflected the consensus among the press and public. Sri Lanka had injury issues to add to their problems, and had doubts about Ranjan Mudugalle who had been set on by drunks on an evening out in Canterbury.
Jim Fairbrother, the groundsman at Lord's in his last Test before retirement, had produced a pitch with little pace and gentle bounce. Cynics suggested he had done so under orders to try to make the match last as long as possible.
David Gower won the toss and stuck Sri Lanka in, looking to exploit any moisture left in the pitch, humidity in the air, as well as the nervousness of the visitors on their first visit to Lord's. An hour in, and all seemed to be going to plan as Sri Lanka lost two wickets.
There was also disruption caused by the first of two pitch invasions by Tamil demonstrators, and opener Sid Wettimuny admitted that rather than upset his concentration, the stoppages helped, allowing him time to chat with the England players as the protestors were escorted or dragged off. While the scenes appeared irritating more than threatening, what was not widely known was that the police had been warned in advance that some spectators might have brought knives into the ground with them.
Those breaks were just about all that stopped Wettimuny. By the close of the first day he had reached 116 not out and Sri Lanka were 226 for 3, with the chubby Arjuna Ranatunga also well set on 54.
Gower was given a hard time by the media who demanded to know why he had not batted. Officially he replied it had been a decision taken after consulting senior players, but years later he admitted otherwise. "When we got to the ground, Peter May, chairman of selectors, had an idea it might be a swinging day," he said. "As captain I had the right to overrule Peter May but in a summer where we'd been beaten into submission my confidence in my own abilities was a little low."
Wettimuny, meanwhile, said he had head pains caused by wearing a helmet all day (something not many established batsmen were used to at the time) and he had also been increasingly bothered by cramp. He also revealed he had taken his bat to the Lord's shop before the start for running repairs.
Gower did have some cause for celebration as at the close he announced to his England team-mates he had got engaged. His fiancée, Vicki Stewart, told the Daily Express: "I don't much like sitting around for five hours watching cricket … but it's great to stretch out on a sunny day and get a tan."
By the next morning Wettimuny had recovered, driving the second ball of the day from Ian Botham for four, and thereafter ploughing on relentlessly in front of another disappointingly small crowd. Such was his off-side dominance that at one stage Botham employed a 7-2 field, but to no effect.
Ranatunga fell for 82 shortly after an early lunch caused by drizzle, but it was to be England's only wicket of a gloomy day. By the close Wettimuny was 187 not out and Duleep Mendis had made exactly a hundred off 112 balls. To loud cheers from spectators, the batsmen had declined offers of light from the umpires. They gave the impression they believed they might be able to win, something backed by the deflated appearance of the England side.
Ian Botham was having a bad summer with bat and ball. He decided to try to bounce Mendis out but lacked the pace and was hooked three times into the Mound Stand for six. Each time his response was to demand more leg-side fielders and to try again. In the end Gower intervened to spare him. For the third time in a Lord's Test that season, Botham had conceded more than a hundred runs. His humiliation was completed when the Sri Lankan supporters started chanting "we want Botham".
It took almost an hour of the third day - in which he had added three to his overnight score - for England to break through and finally remove Wettimuny, who had batted for 18 minutes short of 11 hours.
"I still remember Mohsin Khan called me on the dressing-room phone at every break," he told ESPNcricinfo. "He was playing in the leagues then. First before the match, saying, 'Look, I got a double-hundred there, you can also do it'. Lunch, tea, close of play, till I got out, he called me every break."
Mendis followed soon after, holing out to long-off as Sri Lanka moved towards the declaration which came with them on 491 for 7.
If the crowd had been entertained by the final stages of the Sri Lankan innings, on a hot Saturday afternoon Chris Tavare and Chris Broad sent them to sleep. They added 56 for the second wicket, and took the entire two-hour afternoon session to make 49. In their defence, both were out of touch, but against that had to be factored the Sri Lankan attack was not remotely threatening.
Celebrations extended into the near-empty stands when Tavare finally fell - his 14 had taken 95 balls and lasted 138 minutes - and wicketkeeper Paul Downton later observed: "Tavaré managed to bat himself out of the England side. It was his last Test for five years and he couldn't get it off the square."
For the paying public there was no relief as even Gower failed to up the tempo. At the close England had limped to 139 for 2, of which the last 105 had taken 56 overs. "No self-respecting club side would have been content with the way England batted," fumed Woodcock.
"I do sympathise with the crowd," Gower said at the close after England had been barracked in the evening session. "It's not very enjoyable playing it. But it would be even less enjoyable if we lost a couple of wickets and put ourselves under pressure."
Then in a moment of honesty, albeit not one designed to impress the England board's commercial department, Gower added: "I'm afraid it should be fairly boring, safe cricket from now on. I can't ask anyone to throw away their wicket and we want runs, lots of them.
After a rest day during which they had plenty of time to digest the scorn piled on them by the press, there was some hope England would change tack on the Monday. But even though it was a public holiday and the weather was glorious, fewer than 7000 bothered to turn up to see if they would. Those that stayed away made the right decision.
Broad and Gower resumed with no sign they wanted to do much more than bat out the day. It took almost an hour for the first boundary to come, and although Broad fell for 86 midway through the session, the tortuous progress continued with 71 runs from 30 pre-lunch overs. "It was marginally preferable to sitting in traffic," sighed Matthew Engel in the Guardian.
In the half-hour after the break England wobbled as Gower - whose innings was described as "tedious" by Woodcock - was caught driving loosely for 55 and then Botham was snared in the gully for 6. England were 218 for 5, some way short of the follow-on total and with Allan Lamb still shaking off a back injury caused when he pulled shut the curtains in his hotel room too vigorously.
Richard Ellison survived two chances in his first over, and with Lamb bailed England out with a sixth-wicket stand of 87. Lamb went on to make 107 in 266 minutes - positively aggressive by the standards of his colleagues - and fell to the last ball of the day. Even so, Sri Lanka had surprised everyone by taking a first-innings lead of 121.
"The fifth day was an exercise in futility," wrote David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly. In front of the smallest crowd of a poorly-attended match, Sri Lanka made 294 for 7, with Amal Silva surviving several cramp attacks to make his maiden hundred. For an instant the game might have come to some kind of life as Sri Lanka slipped to 118 for 5 but England were so apathetic in the field - their first 14 overs took 75 minutes - the threat to the visitors was only on paper.
The conclusion to the match summed things up. In front of an almost deserted ground Botham took two late wickets … bowling spin off two paces. "The Sri Lankans were fine players of spin," Lamb said, "and I knew we were taking the piss when Botham started tweaking it."
"Those who stayed away," Woodcock observed, "missed an England performance of surpassing poorness - sans life, sans enterprise, sans everything."
"Looking back, the game could be used as a classic case to illustrate how different things are today," said Jonathan Agnew, who bowled only one over on the final day after pulling a muscle warming up. "I felt a complete outsider, not part of the set-up. I think the feeling in the dressing room was that the game had been a bit of a cock-up."
"I suppose we were setting out to prove we weren't a bad side," reflected Gower. "But it didn't work out that way."

What happened next?

  • Sri Lanka did not play another Test for a year. In the second game of their three-Test series at home to India, they recorded their first victory, beating India by an innings-and-49-runs
  • David Gower captained England to a 2-1 series win in India in 1984-85 and then led them as they regained the Ashes in 1985
  • Sid Wettimuny only passed fifty twice in his next 12 Tests, playing the last of them in 1986-87
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa