CONFRONTED BY a first innings deficit and a pitch now taking spin, England are making a sorry mess of this Test. Indeed, so feeble has their cricket been since tea time on Friday that victory over South Africa now seems as fleeting and misleading as a desert mirage, a place that will seem welcoming in comparison to the cities of Australia, should their stale unimaginative cricket persist.
They still have a game to save here first, and can probably count themselves fortunate that Sri Lanka have only one Test bowler. If England do manage to save this match, it will be because the visitors have no one else with even half Muttiah Muralitharan's talent. With a day to go, England are two wickets down and 92 runs adrift, a shortfall that would seem far more daunting should the man from Kandy taste early success this morning.
It cannot be much fun to see an unassailable position usurped, and then made vulnerable by a country long deemed to be unworthy of a Test series. If the first five sessions of this match belonged to England, they have been choking on humble pie ever since.
As at Old Trafford, where England spent two and a half largely fruitless days watching South Africa clock up 552 for 5, the placid nature of the pitch reduced England's bowlers to mere run-providers as wickets became as scarce to come by as Russian bank managers.
In some ways the ECB should thank Sri Lanka for simulating conditions Down Under and giving the selectors just enough time to reconsider one or two selections. One thing is certain, unless there is juice in the Aussie tracks this winter, England had better get used to long fallow periods in the field.
Facing a deficit of 146 runs, England began their second innings just before tea. Having progressed with few alarms against the seam bowlers, the introduction of Muralitharan soon scotched the England's bowlers' claims that this was a lifeless pitch.
Batsmen tend to get twitchy when he ball is spun vast distances and it was not long before Mark Butcher, attempting to nullify the turn by using his feet, was lured to his doom.
Graeme Hick is normally a fine player of spin, but facing his second ball from Muralitharan, he was beaten by an offbreak that spun back at least twelve inches. Steve James, who had looked suspect against the turning ball, survived with his captain to the close, a partnership that will need to remain intact a while longer if England are to save this match.
The day began with England trailing by a run and badly in need of some urgent damage limitation. Teasingly, it was supplied by Gough who, in the third over of the day, took two wickets in successive balls with virtually identical dismissals.
Swinging the ball conventionally, rather than reverse - a fact that presumably persuaded Stewart to open the bowling with Butcher - Gough trapped Ranatunga with a full length ball that swung into Sri Lanka's left-handed captain.
Clearly pleased that something had worked, after his fruitless efforts of the previous day, Gough tried the same thing next ball and was similarly rewarded as Hashan Tillakaratne, another left-hander, fell across a swinging half-volley that would have plucked out middle stump had pad not been in the way.
After feeling the weight of Sanath Jayasuriya's bat for three and a half sessions on Saturday, time enough to score a masterful double century, England did not quite know whether to celebrate or commiserate. After all, Aravinda de Silva, a 17th Test century in the bag, was still there, and he was now joined by the dangerous Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Having seen how the scything Kaluwitharana played in the Emirates trophy, Stewart should have set two deep gullies. Without them, the wicket-keeper sliced and thrashed his way to 25 before Crawley, parrying a fierce drive at extra cover, recovered in time to catch the rebound.
England's fortunes took a further turn soon after, when Ben Hollioake got one to hold up outside off-stump to De Silva. So, at 504 for 7, England could have claimed a decent time of it had Sri Lanka promptly folded. Like their own tail, however, Sri Lanka's also indulged in some effective swishing with the last pair, Suresh Perera and Muralitharan, adding 59 runs.
Stewart eventually turned to Ian Salisbury, who was given his first bowl of the day. But if the move paid dividends when Muralitharan edged behind, the England captain's reticence to use him sooner was surely evidence that, come October, Salisbury's passport will not have an Australian work visa in it.
SCOREBOARD FROM THE OVAL
Sri Lanka won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 445 (J P Crawley 156no, G A Hick 107, M R Ramprakash 53; M Muralitharan 7-155).
SRI LANKA - First innings
(Friday: 79 for 1)
S T Jayasuriya c Stewart
b Hollioake 213
346 min, 278 balls, 33 fours, 1 six
D P M Jayawardena c Hollioake
b Fraser 9
58 min, 40 balls
P A de Silva c Stewart b Hollioake 152
462 min, 292 balls, 17 fours
*A Ranatunga lbw b Gough 51
139 min, 99 balls, 7 fours, 1 six
H P Tillakaratne lbw b Gough 0
1 min, 1 ball
R S Kaluwitharana c Crawley
b Cork 25
59 min, 50 balls, 2 fours
H D P K Dharmasena lbw b Fraser 13
62 min, 39 balls, 2 fours
S A Perera not out 43
103 min, 77 balls, 6 fours, 1 six
G P Wickramasinghe b Fraser 0
11 min, 7 balls
M Muralitharan c Stewart
b Salisbury 30
57 min, 36 balls, 5 fours
Extras (b15, lb20, w1, nb4) 40
Total (681 min, 156.5 overs) 591
Fall (cont): 2-85 (Jayawardena), 3-328 (Jayasuriya), 4-450 (Ranatunga), 5-450 (Tillakaratne), 6-488 (Kaluwitharana), 7-504 (de Silva), 8-526 (Dharmasena), 9-532 (Wickramasinghe).
Bowling: Gough 30-5-102-2 (5-0-18-0, 5-2-21-0, 5-3-2-0, 4-0-19-0, 6-0- 17-2, 5-0-25-0); Fraser 23-3-95-3 (3-0-15-0, 4-1-17-1, 3-0-12-0, 3-0-6- 0, 4-0-23-0, 6-2-22-2); Hollioake 26-2-105-2 (nb1, w1) (5-0-30-0, 2-0- 15-0, 8-1-25-1, 8-1-21-1, 3-0-14-0); Cork 36-5-128-2 (nb3) (5-1-14-1, 6-0-26-0, 6-1-33-0, 2-0-6-0, 7-0-26-0, 7-2-17-1, 3-1-6-0); Salisbury 25.5- 7-86-1 (2-1-2-0, 15-3-58-0, 7-3-22-0, 1.5-0-4-1); Ramprakash 5-0-24-0; Butcher 11-2-16-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Third day: 100: 122 min, 26.5 overs. 150: 159 min, 34.1 overs. Lunch: 192-2 (Jayasuriya 113, De Silva 47) 47 overs. 200: 223 min, 49.5 overs. 250: 271 min, 61.3 overs. 300: 312 min, 71.4 overs. Tea: 317-2 (Jayasuriya 202, De Silva 72) 76 overs. New ball: Taken after 80 overs at 328-3. 350: 372 min, 84.1 overs. 400: 422 min, 95 overs. Close: 446- 3 (De Silva 125, Ranatunga 50) 110 overs. Fourth day: 450: 485 min, 111.5 overs. 500: 567 min, 130.1 overs. Lunch: 518-7 (Dharmasena 13, Perera 2) 138 overs. 550: 638 min, 147 overs. Innings closed: 3.03pm.
Jayasuriya 50: 72 min, 58 balls, 8 fours. 100: 161 min,124 balls, 17 fours. 150: 258 min, 212 balls, 24 fours, 1 six. 200: 317 min, 254 balls, 31 fours, 1 six.
De Silva 50: 162 min, 87 balls, 8 fours. 100: 295 min, 174 balls, 12 fours. 150: 457 min, 287 balls, 17 fours.
Ranatunga 50: 123 min, 84 balls, 7 fours, 1 six.
ENGLAND - Second Innings
M A Butcher st Kaluwitharana
b Muralitharan 15
53 min, 45 balls, 3 fours
S P James not out 20
147 min, 125 balls, 1 four
G A Hick lbw b Muralitharan 0
5 min, 2 balls
*A J Stewart not out 15
87 min, 82 balls, 1 four
Extras (b2,nb2) 4
Total (for 2, 147 min, 42 overs) 54
Fall: 1-25 (Butcher), 2-25 (Hick).
Bowling: Wickramasinghe 3-0-9-0 (one spell); Perera 5-1-9-0 (3-1-4-0 2-0-5-0); Muralitharan 18-9-16-2 (nb2) (13-6-12-2 5-3-4-0); Dharmasena 9-5-6-0; Jayasuriya 4-1-5-0; De Silva 3-0-7-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Tea: 13-0 (Butcher 8, James 5) 7 overs. 50: 139 min, 38.5 overs.
Umpires: E A Nicholls (WI) and D R Shepherd (Eng).
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content