THE "ENIGMA Variations" were playing here yesterday after Sri Lanka won the toss and asked England to bat. But if Edward Elgar contributed nothing to the occasion, Graeme Hick, with a century, and Mark Ramprakash, with 53, were the principal players who carried the show.
Coming together in the 35th over the pair, who both made their Test debuts in the same match at Headingley in 1991, added 128 in 47 overs. Apart from putting their side into a strong position, it was a partnership that bolstered a depleted England side made vulnerable by the late withdrawal of Michael Atherton, who failed a fitness test on a back spasm.
If Atherton's absence was a significant factor in Arjuna Ranatunga's decision to field first, it was an ill-judged one and by the close the decision was looking pretty barmy.
Apparently Ranatunga, recently described as the Napoleon of Sri Lanka, has inserted opponents 11 times. So far the tactic has yielded four losses, seven draws and no wins. With evidence that compelling, you would think that even despots might occasionally learn from their mistakes.
The puzzles did not stop there, however, and Hick's performance was equally perplexing for explaining little we did not already know. Although it would be glib to presume that anyone can score runs at will against a limited bowling attack without someone to intimidate and seriously test his mettle, his hundred, the fifth of his Test career, had all the bearing of the Euro, a currency so far without a value.
In fact, apart from Muttiah Muralitharan, it would be difficult to find a more county-like attack than Sri Lanka's on a Test ground. Nevertheless, Hick's knock was not that of the dominant flat-track bully of yore, but of someone more secure over his dominion of the crease. Indeed, the statistics of his 198-ball century tell of a patient innings, particularly as he only scored from 53 of them.
Although their styles contrast, Ramprakash also appeared more relaxed. More crouched than Hick, he deflected the spinners with great skill, keeping his wilder extravagances under wraps.
Only after Hick had reached his century did he try to cut loose, a decision he regretted after mowing Muralitharan straight to Mahela Jayawardene at square leg. It was about the first mistake either had made and it took the gloss off an otherwise near perfect day for England's odd couple.
According to Ranatunga, the main reason for putting England in was to take advantage of the moisture in the pitch. In truth, with the sun out, any capriciousness in the surface was never going to last long and Sri Lanka's captain was probably more concerned about exposing his own batsmen than England's, despite the depleted nature of their line-up.
Until the opening bowler, Pramodya Wickramasinghe, went around the wicket to Mark Butcher in the seventh over there were few alarms, despite the second-outing nerves exhibited by Atherton's replacement, Steve James.
In a short time Butcher has not only become a Test player but now looks the Phillip Stark of the order - his batting attractive, minimalist and clean. It was the same yesterday until Wickramasinghe changed his angle and got one to nip away off the pitch, a one-off that Butcher promptly edged to Sanath Jayasuriya at second slip.
Butcher's departure appeared to settle James, who had begun sketchily. If he had been outclassed on his debut against South Africa at Lord's, he appeared determined to make the most of this surprise opportunity.
Punching his drives with a dominant bottom hand, the Glamorgan opener roused the capacity crowd with a controlled hook for four that fairly sped to the square-leg boundary. It was James' most assured shot, as Muralitharan began to tease and taunt with looping off-breaks.
After lunch, when he and Hick had added 62 for the second wicket, the tether broke and James drove a return catch back to the wily off-spinner, undone by his dominant right hand, a dismissal which owed more to sloppy technique than to any guile on the part of the bowler.
Grateful for the mistake, Sri Lanka were moved to joy in the next over when Alec Stewart edged to slip for two, his first Test score under 10 in a year. Captaining his first Test on his home ground, Stewart began as any lord of the manor would - with casual abandon. Unfortunately it was too casual for comfort and he ended up following, and then edging, a wide one from Suresh Perera.
At that point Ranatunga looked an inestimably wise man, a mantle that was to wear off over the next three hours as England dominated the proceedings until Ramprakash's mistake. Two balls later and it could have been another as John Crawley was caught and bowled by Muralitharan. Fortunately for the batsman it was a no-ball and, like Hick, he can now press his claims for a place on this winter's tour of Australia.
Henry Blofeld, photograph, County reports, page 19
SCOREBOARD FROM THE OVAL
Sri Lanka won toss
England - First innings
M A Butcher c Jayasuriya
b Wickramasinghe 10
29 min, 26 balls, 1 four
S P James c and b Muralitharan 36
132 min, 111 balls, 3 fours
G A Hick not out 107
331 min, 230 balls, 14 fours, 1 five
*+A J Stewart c Tillakaratne b Perera 2
7 min, 9 balls
M R Ramprakash c Jayawardene
b Muralitharan 53
174 min, 149 balls, 4 fours
J P Crawley not out 10
44 min, 26 balls, 2 fours
Extras (lb5 nb5) 10
Total (4 wkts, 361min, 91 overs) 228
Fall: 1-16 (Butcher), 2-78 (James), 3-81 (Stewart), 4-209 (Ramprakash).
To bat: B C Hollioake, D G Cork, I D K Salisbury, D Gough, A R C Fraser.
Bowling: Wickramasinghe 18-2-53-1 (nb1) (8-1-21-1, 5-0-15-0, 2-0-11-0 3-1-6-0); Perera 24-7-56-1 (5-2-15-0, 6-2-7-0, 6-1-10-1, 3-1-13-0, 2-0- 9-0, 2-1-2-0); Dharmasena 13-3-44-0 (4-1-4-0, 1-0-7-0, 4-0-26-0, 4-2-7- 0); Muralitharan 31-8-58-2 (14-2-35-1, 6-2-6-0, 11-4-17-1); Jayasuriya 5-0-12-0 (one spell).
Hick 50: 162 min, 107 balls, 7 fours. 100: 285 min, 198 balls, 13 fours. Ramprakash 50: 132 min, 110 balls, 4 fours.
Sri Lanka: S T Jayasuriya, M S Atapattu, D P M Jayawardene, P A de Silva, *A Ranatunga, H P Tillakaratne, +R S Kaluwitharana, G P Wickramasinghe, H D P K Dharmasena, M Muralitharan, S A Perera.
Progress: First day: 50: 91 min, 21.4 overs. Lunch: 74-1 (James 34, Hick 26) 30 overs. 100: 170 min, 43.1 overs. 150: 224 min, 58 overs. Tea: 160- 3 (Hick 67, Ramprakash 39) 63 overs. 200: 297 min, 77.1 overs. (New ball taken after 86.2 overs at 219-4).
Umpires: E A Nicholls and D R Shepherd.
TV Replay Umpire: J W Holder.
Match Referee: Ahmed Ebrahim
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content