Test cricket is a cruel game. James Anderson, not exactly a walking wicket but not Sachin Tendulkar, had blocked 54 balls from Sri Lanka’s attack with relative ease, and was just another two away from saving the game for England, a remarkable achievement given that they started the final day having already lost 5 wickets. In truth, the visiting bowlers who had confounded expectations for the two Tests and done so much better than expected, looked tired and slightly lethargic. Surely, having got this far, Jimmy would be able to safely negotiate just two more deliveries and secure a fairytale ending for this new-look England side?
It was not to be. With the penultimate ball of the match Anderson fended a vicious short ball straight up in the air, presenting one of the 8 fielders around the bat a simple catch, and Sri Lanka had won their first ever Test match series in England, sparking scenes of wild-eyed jubilation from the tourists. It was a fitting end to a test match that had ebbed and flowed in the manner that only the longer format can.
Dismissing Sri Lanka for a below-par score of 257 on the first day (which would have been less if it were not for some appalling catching), and then racking up 311-3 in reply saw England as runaway favourites on the second afternoon. Liam Plunkett, bowling with real pace and hostility on his home ground, had taken 5 wickets while Sam Robson and Gary Ballance made the bulk of Englands runs. Ballance followed up his ton at Lords with an equally composed, assured 74, while Robson went one better, using a gritty technique and studious determination to reach his maiden test hundred, a wonderful moment for him and one which delighted the Headingley crowd. When Ian Bell reached another half century, it looked like England could extend their lead and put the pressure on the tourists to do better in the second innings.
What actually happened was arguably worse than anything that occurred during the Ashes. Facing an attack of no great pace or penetration, the hosts batting line-up crumbled completely. Bowled out for 365, the middle order let them down badly. While this was a disappointing lead, it was still substantial and a reasonable performance by the fast men, in fact anything similar to that in the first innings, would have seen England presented with a relatively simple chase. Instead, the third afternoon and fourth day will rank as among the very worst in recent times for England (although there’s plenty of competition for that dubious accolade).
Catches were dropped, field settings were inexplicable and bowling was short, tired and wayward. The normally-reliable duo of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson looked jaded and could not put any pressure on the batsmen, while Chris Jordan and Plunkett looked a little inexperienced for such an important match situation. Moeen Ali (more about him later), is an extremely competent spinner, but was for some reason not given the ball by Cook until the situation was arguably beyond England. So much has been written about Cook’s captaincy elsewhere that to do so here would be pointless; suffice to say he has had better days.
When England eventually got rid of the obdurate Sri Lankan tailenders, they faced a target of 350 and had around 4 sessions to get it. When Cook and Robson progressed serenely to 40-0, the sparse crowd must have thought there was actually a small possibility that they could still win this. They should have known better. For the second time in the match, an attack of no real magic or mystical skill ripped through Englands batting line-up. 40-0 became 57-5 at the close of play on day 4, and any chance of the hosts winning the game was gone.
Given this, the resistance and doggedness on day 5 should be congratulated. Joe Root, Chris Jordan and Matt Prior all played their part in the grim fight for survival, but the rock upon which the Sri Lankan attack broke itself all day was Moeen Ali. In only his second test and with his place in the team for the India series already under intense (and unfair) scrutiny, the ‘Beard thats Revered’ produced an innings of unbelievable technique, composure and no little self-restraint. Never once looking troubled, Ali reached 108 by the end of play and never once looked like getting out. With personal milestones not bothering him when there was a job to be done for the team, he ignored countless risky scoring opportunities, eventually reaching his century just after tea. At that point Broad was his partner, and once he was out it fell to James Anderson to see England through to what would have been a famous rearguard draw. The fact that they came so close is to be commended, but the problems and issues brought to light cannot be ignored, and need resolving quickly.
Image courtesy of Press Association