Michael Vaughan in reflective mood at the end of a tough tour
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Michael Vaughan was in a reflective mood as England sifted through the wreckage of the third Test in Colombo. It was a match that had promised so much after those fighting rearguards at Galle and Kandy, but it the end the defences caved in and England crumbled to the third-heaviest defeat of their Test history.
"These things happen," said Vaughan. "We came into the game at 0-0 and fully expected a better performance, but it wasn't to be." But, after getting first use of an excellent batting track, Vaughan was fully aware that England should have scored more runs in their first innings. "We simply didn't get enough to put Sri Lanka under any pressure," he admitted. "With an inexperienced attack, we needed to take advantage."
Inevitably, it was Muttiah Muralitharan, with 26 wickets in the series, who was the difference between the teams. "In the first two games, we played him well, and fought hard to keep him out," said Vaughan. "But he's ended up as Man of the Series, so you have to say he beat us fair and square. That new delivery of his has caused us a lot of problems, and even the experienced batsmen have struggled to pick him. We've been up against a world-class performer. His wickets and the way he has bowled has always had us under pressure.
"I didn't expect the game to be over today, but we've been on the ropes for three hard games, and today was the knockout blow." The man who delivered the knockout, in Vaughan's opinion, was Dilhara Fernando. "He was excellent. He varied his pace, mixed slower balls and yorkers, and found a bit of reverse swing. He got good use out of the wicket."
Vaughan summed up: "Looking back throughout the series, Sri Lanka had us under pressure every day. We can only take so many blows. But there's no point in blaming fatigue. With three days between each Test, we always came back fully refreshed. As long as we get those days off, there's no problem with back-to-back Tests."
A slight disappointment for England was the form of Graham Thorpe, who was England's batting hero in the 2000-01 series victory here. But this time, Murali had the better of him, and he managed a solitary half-century in his six innings. "It's not for me to say how Thorpe has to bat," said Vaughan, "but he's admitted he's struggled in this series. He has an outstanding record against Murali, and has tried every policy to score off him. But that new delivery has caused a lot of problems - it's one thing seeing it, quite another thing playing it."
Vaughan conceded that his inexperienced bowlers have struggled in this series, but was adamant that the only way they would improve was if England kept faith with what they've got. "Obviously the best we've had for many years were Gough and Caddick, and to emulate them, our players have got to be given a good run in all conditions. Bowling quick out here is hardest job of all, so this experience will stand the likes of Jimmy [Anderson] in good stead. A few years down the line, we hope to be pretty potent."
The next stop for England is the West Indies, but not before a much-needed break. "First things first, we need to rest our bodies for a month, and then it's back to training in February," said Vaughan. "It should be a good series. The Windies have good young batters and pacemen like ours. The one thing they don't have is a Murali."
And who will be on that plane to the West Indies? "We'll be weighing up every option for the Caribbean," said Vaughan. "The discussion will be in the next few weeks, and it's going to be tough to whittle our options down to 16. There are several headaches for the selectors, with many good players to choose from."