THE WORLD champions were batting yesterday at the most historic of all cricket grounds. This alluring combination had something in the region of 1,000 witnesses. Two of the stands were closed, the others were a sea of uninhabited white seats.
It was nobody's fault - doubtless when Sri Lanka revisit Lord's to play England in the Triangular Tournament in a fortnight the place will be packed - but it is still a pity that cricket should have to depend so completely on the big game syndrome for its appeal.
True, Sri Lanka's reputation rests almost entirely on their success in the one-day game but their zest for cricket in any form is a joy to behold. A day which started brightly was interrupted by poor light and rain but the tourists, as unpronounceable as ever to English tongues, were never less than entrancing.
Sanath Jayasuriya, the left-hander who reinvented the approach to limited- overs cricket,blazed away briefly, and Russel Arnold produced a typically attacking cameo. But there was mostly Jayasuriya's fellow opener, Marvan Atapattu. Marvellous Marvan, driving with delightful abandon, hit nine fours as he reached his first 50 off 71 balls. He had to contend with two enforced breaks which cost 38 overs in the day, but this did not affect his elegant timing and he reached his first century of the tour from a further 61 deliveries with seven more boundaries.
The Sri Lankans' tour has been a fairly well kept secret between them and the teams they happen to have been playing. This is also probably nobody's fault but over the years they have deserved better. They are here for the Triangular Tournament and for one Test match, which will be only their fourth here since they attained Test status 17 years ago.
Sri Lanka would have liked to play two Tests on this tour partly on the grounds that the only way they are going to improve, though one hopes not shed their natural vim in the process, is to play more often. Two winters ago Australia played them at home in a three-match series, and earlier this year South Africa were hosts for two Tests. The England and Wales Cricket Board insist that their schedules are too tight to allow more games with the Sri Lankans. While there are a lot of full-member nations around these days, this seems to be a less convincing argument than the one that they are worried Sri Lanka would not attract enough paying spectators to provide cash to be distributed around counties who do not always deserve it.
Sri Lanka have been good for cricket. Although they registered a record total of 952 last year they have not quite got the hang of Test matches (they lost all five of those matches against Australia and South Africa) but their World Cup triumph three years ago was one of the great moments in the game. Their seam bowling is suspect, particularly since they were forced to leave Chaminda Vaas at home because of injury, but their batting should see them through.
Undone on unfamiliar pitches early in the tour they could afford to leave out their two biggest stars, Arjuna Ranatunga, the captain, and Aravinda De Silva, in this game and not feel remotely vulnerable. They have also omitted the off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, who is likely to provide England's batsmen with a severe examination in the Test.
Middlesex, too, were not at their strongest. Considering they are 17th in the Championship they might have wished to give everybody possible a game. Angus Fraser, of course, deserved it off but he could be seen practising behind the Nursery End in the morning, grunting away as he bowled to Mike Gatting.
Watching Fraser is almost as alluring as watching Sri Lanka.